Opinionista Ferial Haffajee 14 August 2019

Dear Helen Zille, your position on Sanef vs EFF is neither wise nor brave

To see your bait-and-switch and hear you sometimes adopt the language of Europe’s growing far-right and America’s neoconservatives (who also parade as libertarians) has had me gasping for air.

Dear Helen,

I read your piece with great interest. As you are a storied former journalist, I take your views on media freedom seriously and as it pertains to Sanef’s court case against the EFF, it has made me think.

You argue that the media should not be an impediment to free speech and free expression as designed by our constitutional godmothers. That is right and the court case came only after the rhetorical violence of the EFF against a wide range of journalists reached a point of endangering lives and impeding reporting.

As I explained, Julius Malema did not organically, as you write, caution care from his supporters outside the Zondo Commission of Inquiry where they engaged in the politics of chaos for a week in November 2018. He did so because he saw how his words stirred his audience to act on his instruction to engage the named media. By any measure, that is a dangerous stunt to pull.

I am currently reading about the Rwandan media’s role in creating the atmosphere for genocide to occur and while I think that will never happen here, the study is teaching me much about how cultures of hate and exclusion are created.

Given that you last worked as a journalist some decades ago, you will be alarmed to know that it is once again as dangerous as it was when you covered the rebellion against apartheid, but with the added venom of online violence.

Social media’s disinformation campaigns are recognised as a threat not simply to media freedom but to democratic systems; dealing with them exercises democrats the globe over and I don’t think the simple free expression argument (that all information is somehow equal and that the best argument wins) you advance cuts the mustard in the 21st century. Otherwise, why are Facebook and Twitter on the carpet in legislatures and countries as diverse as Germany and the United States?

Big-girl panties?

In fact, journalists now face double jeopardy (both physically and digitally) and your injunction that we put on our big-girl panties (because it’s a “normal day at the office”, as you argued) is neither wise nor brave. As I learnt from Raymond Louw, the great defender of media freedom who died this year (2019), you must squeal and squeal loudly at every infraction of freedom because that’s how you protect it.

Also, I am quite comfortable displaying my vulnerability — you called it “wimpish” — for me, it’s being human and unafraid to show it. If you have made peace with death threats on Twitter, cool; I haven’t and would rather fight to make it a place of civil engagement and put the tormentors on terms.

The Sanef application is not one to silence the EFF, but to interdict it from a line of rhetoric that with its online trolling army can prevent free movement and free reporting by the media. These are important and nuanced differences in how you have interpreted the case or its larger implications.

I look forward to being on your podcast with you later in August as part of your new role as a senior fellow of the Institute of Race Relations. I do hope that you will use this powerful new role to explore greater liberties rather than tilt over into an alt-right stance that seeks to protect and enhance minority interests and privileges, as your most recent work indicates you will do.

As a practitioner of the ideas of the open society, you taught me a lot about what such a world can look like in our country, so to see your bait-and-switch and hear you sometimes adopt the language of Europe’s growing far-right and America’s neoconservatives (who also parade as libertarians) has had me gasping for air.

Shelley Garland is back

Much of your article is a defence of the tactics of your IRR colleague Marius Roodt, the drag artist better known as Shelley Garland who brought down the Huffington Post in South Africa. Garland (or Roodt) catfished the young title and successfully placed an awful blog which recommended the disenfranchisement of white men. From there, it was downhill.

You try to suggest that his methods were part of a sophisticated opus of work designed to show how identitarian politics are gameable. I call it deception by a drag artist whom I called a ‘doos’* in the unmasking interview we did with him after finding out who he was. That wasn’t an ad hominem insult, but a reflection on his/her email signature of the time which read something like “Don’t be a doos. Be lekker.”

Better advice you can’t find. DM

*Doos is translated here as an arsehole.

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