Tuesday, February 21, 2017

South Africa's ‘Hate Speech Bill’ Threatens Freedom of Speech

David Jenkin in Media Update.

Zuma cartoon by Dr Jack & Curtis

Editorial cartoonists and satirists in general have a vital role to play in the news landscape. The pen, wielded by a talented hand with a gift for comedy, can be a powerful weapon against the malfeasant while simultaneously entertaining the public. 

In a world of increasingly visually-orientated media, a strong cartoon can pack a knock-out punch.

Satire under fire

Right through South Africa’s turbulent political history, cartoonists have been there to hold up a satirical mirror. Inviting controversy is par for the course. As such, even in a democracy, satirists often see their right to freedom of expression challenged, sometimes even with violence.

The most glaring example from recent history was the attack on the offices of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in 2015. South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, wrote to The Daily Vox the following day, 8 January, that the impact was worsening as he considered the implications for cartoonists, satirists and media in general.

“I feel it’s very childish when people turn the blame on the cartoonists and the publication,” he wrote. He called it a cowardly attack on people who were merely expressing a point of view, people who are extremely necessary in a secular society. 

“We need to have people who will push the boundaries,” he added, “That’s not to say that I liked everything that was done by their cartoonists – that’s not the issue. It’s not about whether one likes everything, it’s about the fact that they felt the freedom in that secular society to do things that were irreverent.”

Loud voices

Rico Schacherl, the South African cartoonist best known for the long-running comic strip Madam & Eve, says the mandate of the cartoonist is to “speak truth to power, to hold the corrupt, the venal and the hypocritical up for ridicule.”

Cartoonist and creator of Africartoons, John Curtis, echoes him, adding that cartoonists are able to address delicate and complex issues head on, “without the restrictions and niceties our fellow journalists are often held to”. In speaking truth to power, they often find common ground with audiences across political persuasions, he says. “In instances where cartoonists take a stand on an issue where their readers might disagree with them, their cartoons act as excellent catalysts for discussion and debate.”

Schacherl adds, “Humour and satire is part of a general conversation to uphold citizen's rights and uphold the rights to free speech.” During times of turbulence, he says, humour and satire form part of a general conversation around the preservation of citizen’s rights, the rights to free speech in particular. Such times “often give governments and state structures the excuse to whittle away at people's rights and freedoms, both under law and the constitution”.

No laughing matter

When asked if he ever worries that people might lose their sense of humour, especially in difficult times, Schacherl says, “Yes, that can happen, and in some cases is already happening in instances where political correctness can stifle humour – but humour is a great coping mechanism under times of stress – even if it has to go ‘underground’ in oppressive regimes like the communist Soviet Union.”

He adds, “More worrying is that governments, state bureaucracies and churches/religious institutions, who by their very definition have no sense of humour, decide that they will try and enforce this on the general populace.”
Curtis also highlights political correctness, taken too far, as a threat to satire. He elaborates, “History demonstrates that cartoonists should be made aware of how the power of their medium could advance racism and other forms of bigotry. However, there are also opportunists who seize every opportunity to cry ‘racism’ or ‘bigotry’ where there is none, in the hope of quieting the cartoonists’ pen.”

He emphasises the need for cartoonists to continuously defend their right to free expression of thoughts and ideas, whilst remaining mindful of sensitivities. He says it should ultimately be left to the cartoonist and the editor to decide where to draw the line, rather than a set of prescribed laws which inhibit the freedoms necessary for good socio-political commentary.

Cartoon by Brandan Reynolds

A world gone mad

Another concern occasionally voiced is that reality could outdo the satirists in terms of being simply too ridiculous to satirise. “Well, we already have the case where stuff happens that's funnier, weirder and more bizarre than anything you can up with,” says Schacherl. “President Trump is a good example. If a few years back you'd have written about a US president tweeting policy and bullshit ‘alternative truths’ and picking fights with department stores, you would have been laughed off as preposterous.”

Curtis says, “This is a standing joke amongst cartoonists. But the truth is, as the world spirals into more craziness, cartoonists have constantly stepped up to the plate and met the challenges head on. Cartooning finds itself on fertile grounds in the times of Zuma and Trump.”

South Africa’s new free speech limits

With regards to the proposed Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, or ‘Hate Speech Bill’ – widely criticised as far too broad and heavy-handed – Schacherl says he has doubts it will survive a Constitutional Court challenge. However, more than the Bill’s content, he is concerned that the South African government is considering such laws to begin with.

Curtis says he also remains suspicious of the Bill’s hidden intentions. “I wish we as cartoonists had made a louder collective noise against it, but I have no doubt we’ll challenge it (should it be implemented) in the language we speak best: cartoons. We can only hope that sanity will prevail, because, if it doesn’t, this could well bring an end to twenty-three proud years of freedom of expression in South Africa.”

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