Press and media freedom

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Section 16 explicitly mentions that freedom of expression includes ‘freedom of the press and other media’. Press freedom is an essential for freedom of expression in general. This articulation of the freedom of the press and the media is undoubtedly an indication of the seminal role that both the press and media play in our democracy which ensures political and other freedoms. The press and media fulfil this role to ensure, inter alia, an open and democratic society..

As our Constitution and its progressive Bill of Rights is dynamic in nature, the extent to which press freedom as a distinct form of freedom of expression in general, will have to be worked out by the Courts. The probing, investigative and courageous character of the press is essential to maintain the kind of robust and critical discourse that must take place in the liberal democracy that South Africa aspires to be, without deference for any person or party out of fear or the consequences of publication. 

This is necessary so that the public can be honestly informed of state of the country, relating to government, civil society and all political parties. It is important at all times, but of singular importance at election time. Any action or statements made by persons and political parties that undermine this indispensable role of the press must be condemned in the no uncertain terms and the law must take its course expeditiously if press freedom is constitutionally violated or undermined.

Karima Brown is known as a journalist for her honest and courageous reporting in relation to all and sundry and is no respecter of persons or parties however intimidating their reactions may be to her frank reporting. In this regard she has clashed swords with the irascible Julius Malema and reported boldly on his utterances at election meetings. This has resulted in a torrent of abuse from Malema and his supporters that it is submitted has crossed the metaphorical line as to what is permissible and what not in the hurly burly of robust political debate that is essential for liberal democracy. This was done post haste in order apparently to deter her from continuing to report frankly on his outrageous political utterances. 

Malema is notorious for making, as a populist politician, such utterances in order to attract electoral support. In an impetuous manner he published her telephone number online, simultaneously informing his supporters that the iniquitous Brown was insidiously sending her ‘moles’ to an EFF press conference (M&G, editorial 8-14 March). It was a cunning strategy to incite his puerile supporters to unleash a torrent of abuse against her involving as the M&G reported ‘multiple threats of physical violence, including many of a graphic and sexual nature’. One of these stated ‘[w]e are not playing. We are dealing with racists… step aside or we will crush your prolapsed vagina’.

As an observer and commentator on the debate relating to body politic I have never encountered such an unprecedented obscene language like this, from members of a political party. It seriously violates a multitude of fundamental rights, such as equality, human dignity, life, security of persons and non-sexism. It is ingenious for Malema to suggest that he did not know exactly what he was doing in an attempt to exculpate him, as a seasoned and very surreptitious politician!

It is essential that the law must take its course expeditiously. So for instance, section 8(c) of the Electoral Act declares that parties and candidates ‘ must take all reasonable steps to ensure that journalists are not subjected to harassment, intimidation, hazard, threat or physical assault …’. It is categorically clear that Malema in effect incited his followers to breach the law by their unprecedented verbally obscene assaults on Brown. These assaults impact not only to Brown as a journalist, but affects women in general, who find themselves in a most vulnerable position in relation to escalating gender violence in South Africa, which Malema and his followers have wittingly or unwittingly contributed to.

It is most unfortunate that when charges of any kind are brought against Malema and members of the EFF there always appears to be some kind of delay. This appears to be the position in relation to charges brought against Malema to the Human Rights Commission. Furthermore, the EFF verbal assault on Brown cannot be perceived in isolation. Such conduct over a period of time reveals an insidious strategy to in effect undermine journalistic independence and boldness as part of its populistic and opportunist political philosophy used by Malema, which is the very antithesis of liberal democracy. This is a pattern of notorious behaviour, which involved, inter alia, the assault of a News24 photographer, Adrian de Kick, by the unpredictable EFF deputy President, Floyd Shivambu.

In the interest of the integrity of our fledgling democracy it is imperative that both the Independent Electoral Commission and the Human Rights Commission take expeditious action in relation to pending charges brought against Malema and his supporters for alleged violations the Electoral Act and human rights respectively. The press itself must also cogently defend its freedom. Malema and his unruly supporters should in no way be allowed to dictate the political debate prior to the general election on 8th May.


George Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.