Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema and his party have perpetuated a climate of hostility towards journalists by targeting individuals from the media in public and endorsing supporters who threaten journalists online, the Pretoria Equality Court heard on Monday.
The court is currently hearing the first of three days of arguments between the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) and five journalists who accuse Malema and the EFF of hate speech and harassment, which they say is an attempt to silence the party’s critics.
Representing the journalists and Sanef, Advocate Daniel Berger said Malema’s November 2018 speech outside the State Capture Inquiry where he said seven journalists were spreading propaganda on behalf of President Cyril Ramaphosa had directly led to journalists being viciously threatened and attacked on social media.
Berger said the individuals were targeted “because of the particular beliefs or opinions they articulate as journalists” and now lived in fear for their own safety and the safety of their families.
Berger read tweets from EFF supporters that were either meant to threaten the journalists or promote physically harming them. Malema either re-tweeted the comments or refused to condemn them and distance the party from what supporters do in its name.
“This environment created by the respondents is one that is calculated to stop complainants and other journalists from reporting negatively on Mr Malema and the EFF. As a result, the respondents [the EFF] deliberately refrained from condemning their supporters and instead condoned the attacks on the complainants and other journalists,” said Berger.
“We have to protect the journalists from hate speech and we have to protect the journalists from harassment,” he continued.
“A compliant press is the last thing we need in this country.”
The EFF is likely to argue that Malema has also cautioned supporters against using violence against journalists but Berger said that by re-tweeting threats he had endorsed harassment and hate speech.
Sanef chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase wrote to the EFF twice requesting a meeting to discuss the safety of journalists being threatened and bullied. The EFF replied first saying Mahlase should have written to Secretary General Godrich Gardee. When she did so, he said the party was busy until after the May 2019 elections, months away.
Sanef and the five journalists, including Ranjeni Munusamy from Tiso Blackstar, Pauli Van Wyk from Daily Maverick, Adriaan Basson from News24, and Max du Preez from Vrye Weekblad, want the court to interdict the EFF from harassing journalists and endorsing threats and to rather publicly denounce the threats.
The EFF has argued that the journalists are acting like politicians and that they should act professionally.
“It can be that Mr Malema can say all of this will stop when you start acting professionally,” said Berger.
The journalists said they have had to take precautions to ensure their safety and Berger said the EFF’s actions have created a “chilling” environment for young journalists covering politics or investigative journalism.
“You would be crazy to continue doing that because ultimately it’s going to end very badly for the journalists concerned,” he said of those who face threats.
In her affidavit to court, Sanef’s Mahlase said: “They cannot threaten violence or condone violence against journalists. They are under a duty to ensure the safety of journalists. They cannot treat the complainants and other journalists as if they are their political opponents.”
The hearing continues. DM
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