Respecting all forms of freedom of expression is critical

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Attacks on freedom of expression on the Internet and the associated social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, in South Africa are now increasingly mirroring such attacks in offline public life.

The Internet has democratised access to information. It has made it possible for ordinary citizens to spread their own views unmediated to audiences beyond their immediate, family and village circle. Previously, information, news and opinion were filtered to most ordinary citizens by powerful media, political or business organisations and elites.

The Internet are giving ordinary citizens in South Africa and Africa a greater voice in civic, public participation and decision-making they never had been before. However, the internet has also allowed, hate, rights abuses and untruths to be spread quickly to wider audiences.

Freedom of expression, freedom of association and basic human rights set out in the constitution is also applicable to the internet. The European Union in a report last year observed that the Internet has now “become the largest free speech battleground of our times, with states and other actors seeking to control or manage the dissemination of online content, driven by both legitimate concerns and non-democratic designs”.

Violent political language, hate speech and threats against those with different views have now increasingly become a feature of South Africa’s online communities. The alarming rise in intolerance, prejudice and parochialism in wider society, is now also prevalent online. Racism, sexism and homophobia abounds. Tribalism, whether based on race, ethnicity or political affiliation are expressed online also.  

As a case in point, South Africa is a deeply patriarchal which is an obstacle to democracy, development and growth. Deep-seated offline patriarchy is often reflected online, with women with independent views, who are not conforming to stereotype or traditional gender roles, often being attacked, trolled and abused with venom.   

Misinformation, fake news and half-truths are often also spread online. It appears that the relatively anonymity that the keyboards give people the license to vent their base prejudices online in ways they would often not to do in traditional media, and offline public spaces and platforms. All of this shrinks freedom of expression online, restricts the diversity of opinion and lowers the quality of public debate. As citizens increasingly get their information online, without freedom of expression citizens online cannot make informed decisions about policies, political leaders and leaders.

In fact, it appears that in some online communities the public discourse, debate and dialogue have also been corrupted in similar ways to the offline “public sphere”. South Africa is a typical developing country with a youth bulge, where young people are the largest demographic; which is the reverse in industrial countries. In the 8 May 2019 elections will for the first time young people born after the end of formal apartheid in 1994 will become the majority voters.

Most young people form their opinions from information they get from the internet, rather than traditional media, as has been the case in earlier generations. The danger is that those who receive the bulk of their news, information and opinions online, will be fed on a diet of untruths, hate and prejudice.

For all its democratic benefits, the internet has also now further segregated South Africa’s public sphere. South Africa’s public sphere in the post-apartheid have in many instances between segregated between elites, political and ethnic communities; with these only on certain issues intersecting. The echo chamber of the internet could further turn South Africa’s public sphere into gated communities only speaking to each other.

At the same time, it could deepen the exclusion of those outside the internet communications system – the poor, rural and marginalized. Governments, business and civil society must provide equitable access to the internet to all citizens.

The United Nations has rightly stressed the importance of “applying a comprehensive human rights-based approach when providing and expanding access to the Internet and for the Internet to be open, accessible and nurtured by multi-stakeholder participation”.

Undermining of freedom of expression, human rights and freedoms online must be monitored by democratic institutions, civil societies and citizens in the same way they monitor (or should) offline contraventions of such rights. Pressure should be put on social networks and online operators to act against attacks on freedom of expression, human rights and freedoms online.

At the same time, many governments are eager to use legitimate concerns about online abuse to introduce censorship, restrictions. Many African countries have tried to restrict online freedom of expression, by closing down social media applications during elections, censoring what is posted and prosecuting those critical of governing parties and leaders. Ultimately, citizens, corporates and civil society must behave as democratic citizens online – and governments must also respect online democratic rights.  


William Gumede is the Executive Chairman, Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org); and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).