Pennington: ‘Free Speech under attack’ – an era of global extremism

It’s a discussion that’s been sparked by the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘censorship’. Violent protests are ignored while radio shows with external editors have been canned. The broadcaster has gone as far as banning call-ins, afraid of what may be said on air. But what are the implications of such and is South Africa a unique case. SA’s Mr Good News Steuart Pennington explores the idea of free speech, a day after journalists marched at the doors of what’s been confirmed as the ruling party’s mouth piece with Hlaudi Motsoeneng steering the ship, under the watchful eye of President Jacob Zuma. The answer is not so cut and dry as globally free speech is coming under attack, and not just from governments. The article was first published on – Stuart Lowman

by Steuart Pennington*

‘SPOTLIGHT’ is an excellent movie. Winner of an Oscar for ‘Best Picture’ it tells of the critical importance of high quality investigative journalism as a pillar of democracy. The story is of the exposé, by determined journalists, of child abuse by Catholic priests. The revelation of which had world-wide ramifications.

The Economist’s leader “Free Speech under attack” I read on the same day.

Is that synchronicity or what?

Demonstrators protest against the decision by public broadcaster the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that it would not broadcast scenes of violent protest, in Cape Town, South Africa, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Demonstrators protest against the decision by public broadcaster the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that it would not broadcast scenes of violent protest, in Cape Town, South Africa, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Today I sit dumbfounded by the Brexit result. The scariest words were not from David Cameron, or from Jeremy Corbyn, but from Tony Blair who warned, “The world has become disenchanted with centrist-right and centrist-left politics, we are moving into an era of global extremism. The Brexit vote demonstrates this.”

What then are the implications for Freedom of Speech?

The Economist points out that on the one hand ‘this is a golden age for free speech. Your smart phone can call up newspapers from the other side of the world in seconds. More than a billion tweets, Facebook posts and blog updates are published every single day.”

“But”, the Economist continues, “watchdogs report that speaking out is becoming more and more dangerous – and they are right, curbs on free speech have become tighter.

Without the contest of ideas, the world is timid and ignorant.”

Globally, the Economist reports that free speech is under attack in three ways (with some of my words):

  • Repression by governments has increased. Several countries have re-imposed cold-war controls or introduced new ones.
  • Non-state actors are enforcing censorship by assassination. Reporters who are investigating crime or corruption are often murdered, tortured or followed and threatened.
  • The idea has spread that people and groups have a right not to be offended. But offense is subjective, the power to police is both vast and arbitrary. For example, we now argue that men are not in a position to comment on feminism, nor whites to speak about slavery or racism, nor the ‘advantaged’ to talk about inequity and the plight of those in poverty.

What is our situation here in SA?

  1. The public broadcaster, increasingly under the control of the ruling party, has banned some independent thought eg, the cancellation of the Sunday ‘Editors’ programme; the banning of public disturbance screening etc
  2. Those following up on the many crime and corruption scandals have publicly reported being ‘followed and warned’ with death threats – and have employed extra protection as a result. The Public Protector being the prime example.
  3. Our campuses throw out visiting speakers because they are ‘too white’; our Minister of Sport tells sporting federations that they can’t bid for international events because they don’t meet his racial quota’s; our businesses are compromised by not meeting BBBE requirements despite the unavailability of the requisite skill; our parliamentary process is disrupted those intent on destroying civilized debate.

I suppose it is cold comfort to know that we in SA are subject to a chilling global trend of heightened extremism and intolerance.

Those of us involved in journalism must remain vigilant; we must ensure our ability to thoroughly investigate, we must remain committed to exposing acts that contravene our democratic and constitutional principles.

These are obvious points.

BUT, we must be aware of the insidious creep of liberal intolerance; of censorship being defended in the interests of democracy; of respectable-sounding decisions being made with authoritarianism the goal; of discrimination being dressed up as a majoritarian process.

Equally we should be intolerant of violence and destruction as a way of expressing disagreement.

The Brexit vote, the possible nomination of Trump, Putin’s grandiose imperialism plans, our own public broadcaster censorship are all examples of a more intolerant ‘liberal’ world anxious about the perceived perils of globalisation.

Our ability to investigate and report the facts accurately, in context and with balance must never fall foul of this intolerance.

  • Steuart Pennington, CEO, South Africa – The Good News.