Sticks & Stones: Journalism and Hate Speech in South Africa

“I realise that when reporting, I walk with a stoop now, bent from the world as if to protect myself. It’s not like me. At news events, like EFF media conferences, I make myself small and will ask questions in a way that sound to me as I reflect, almost obsequious. It’s definitely not like me”

It was heart-breaking to read these words written by a respected and seasoned editor and journalist, Ferial Hafajee in her August, 06, 2019 article “Twitter and the rest of social media are a rising threat to media freedom – and I am part of the roadkill”. 

In the article she explains why she chose to have her name excluded from a hate speech court application brought by the South African National Editors Forum, (Sanef) against  the country’s third opposition political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) whose leader Julius Malema  had on several occasions instructed his followers to deal “decisively” with certain journalists who he said were traitors and members of the white-monopoly capital “cabal”

Hafajee said while she supported the case wholeheartedly, she wanted, “the spotlight to turn away because the insults sear at me”

Unfortunately, the court found that however despicable the EFF’s speech was, the political party had no legal case to answer.  The court ruled that unlike hate speech based on sex, gender or race – journalism was in fact a career choice  and as a result journalists did not require special protection under  the law as they are by far not the most vulnerable group in society.

In summarising the case the High Court observed that  “With the huge numbers of social media users, all types of users will undoubtedly be subjected to some form of social media trolling during their usage… Social media has changed the way people communicate. The change specifically to social media is the anonymity of its agents; those who write and comment often use nicknames and aliases. Anonymity leads to avoidance of responsibility.”

This in effect means that journalists who become victims of hate speech on social media and in real life have no alternative means for recourse and that pursuing  the creation of such legal frameworks such as the Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill  might in effect prove to be a pyrrhic victory; which could  impinge on journalists ability to report freely in the future.

Since the law provides limited options for recourse apart from defamation law constitutional court expert Pierre De Vos suggests that journalists should simply “avoid trolls by not reading what they write” in a recent article explaining why, the Eff was not guilty of hate speech.

In the real world where journalists can’t “mute” people from saying what they like and so will be forced to hear it. It would be wise for journalists to enlist hate speech as an occupational hazard. In this way they can claim damages or remedies such as access to psychotherapy and counselling to help them cope with the verbal assaults since it has become abundantly clear that journalist do not have thick skin and the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never break me” no longer rings true.


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