Let's Think

Can freedom of speech be without borders?

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Much wider issues than just freedom of speech and of the media and censorship, in whatever shape or form, are squarely on the table after the terrorist attack on a French satirical magazine and another verbal attack on South African media.

By coincidence the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris followed hard on the heels of South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary and cabinet minister Blade Nzimande’s verbal attack on the way South African media manage the comment sections on their websites.

The nature, scope and direct impact of the two cases on the broader society are light years apart, but at their core they deal with the same subject matter: What, if any, are the boundaries between freedom of speech and hate speech and how should, if at all, they be regulated or enforced?

The first point to consider is whether freedom of speech, and by extension the media, can be regarded as a purely personal or individual matter?

In the case of Charlie Hebdo the answer lies in some of the known facts: The magazine knew what the security risks were regarding the nature of its editorial content, hence the police protection it had at its offices – at the expense of French taxpayers.

The magazine clearly judged that the risks were worth their while and they were willing to take the risks.

But it was not a risk they took only on behalf of themselves. In the end, of the 12 people who lost their lives in the terrorists attack, four were innocent ordinary members of the public not connected to the magazine and two were policemen who were there protect the magazine’s right to “say whatever they like”, no matter how insulting, offensive or intolerant of those it disagreed with on any subject.

To that can be added the wider impact of 80 000 security personnel now searching for the terrorists and the impact on the political climate in France and even the rest of the world.

In the case of the comments sections on media websites, no one can argue against the fact that their content more often than not, especially on socio-political matters, is offensive and blatantly racist. And it comes from all “camps” in our highly diversified society.

As illustrated by Mr Nzimande’s remarks, these comments affect the atmosphere in the society in which we all live – including those of us who abhor racism in whatever shape or form. It also increases the risks of polarisation and “incidents”.

South Africa is lucky that it has institutions like the Human Rights Commission to deal with matters like hate speech. However, the practice of allowing commentators on the net to post anonymously complicates the reach of these institutions in this case.

It is telling that apart from the “moderating filter” employed by many, if not most, media websites, globally these sites are increasingly ditching their comments sections or adding additional filters.

According to a recent report by the Columbia Journalism Review when the publication Popular Science in September 2013 became the first to ditch its comments section “the internet response was mostly negative or incredulous. But it’s becoming increasingly commonplace as more discussion gets outsourced to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other parts of the social Web.

“And many of the sites that are keeping their comments sections are distancing the reader from the sprawling debate traditionally housed underneath the article. Politico requires users to click to view their comments. The Atlantic only shows the section after a long jump from the article text. During a site redesign last February, the Los Angeles Times shifted its comments section to the side, forcing readers to seek out, and click on, comments in order to see them.”

Intolerance of intolerance

Formal regulation/censorship and especially government regulation of free speech, with all its risks of political manipulation, is not only imperfect, but runs the risk of robbing leaders in society of an important feedback mechanism of what is happening in society.

The answer to the challenge of finding a balance between the twin needs of freedom of speech and protection against hate speech and intolerance, lies in communities themselves.

In the case of France, unlike in Germany where the majority of Germans are presently protesting against anti-Islamist demonstrations, French society tolerated the offensive and intolerant approach of Charlie Hebdo.

The incident in Paris and the re-emergence of racism in South Africa illustrate the truth of the conventional wisdom that “no man is an island,” and Mr Nzimande will do well to also direct some words on this subject to a number of his party and government colleagues.

As part of society, each of us needs to think hard about ways in which we can effectively demonstrate our intolerance of intolerance.

Follow us on Twitter: @IntelligenceBul

by Piet Coetzer

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