Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
7 December 2009

In a democracy, suckers will be sucked

When someone (like myself!) criticises the President of the day (for making homophobic statements, say, or for appointing a dishonest lackey as head of the prosecuting authority), it is often said that such criticism is wrong because it does not show respect for the incumbent head of state as an individual and also insults the Office that he holds.

Zapiro, for example, has been lambasted for drawing our President with a showerhead on his head while the Presidency appeared to get rather upset when I used intemperate language when criticising his purported appointment of Menzi Simelane as the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

There are, of course, good strategic reasons for the Presidency to pick fights like this. It can change the public narrative and can divert attention from the real scandals – which would usually be the unlawful or scandalous behaviour of the head of state himself. By creating a scapegoat, supporters of the President who might have a complete lack of understanding of what vigorous debate in an open and democratic society should entail, can be made to forget that their leader has acted in a way not becoming of a person who should enjoy our trust and respect.

Similarly there may be good strategic reasons for not attacking the Head of State in over the top or intemperate language as this provides the Presidency with an opportunity to divert attention from the actions of the Head of State, actions that may appear to be illegal, blatantly self-serving or unconstitutional. Such attacks can also lower the tone of democratic debate and before we know it we might all be speaking in dumbed-down soundbites or utter thuggish threats (like Julius Malema has  a habit of doing) instead of talking about the real issues facing our nation – including poverty, crime and corruption. 

However, if one leaves such strategic considerations aside, there is a more fundamental principle regarding freedom of expression at stake in such cases. The assumption underlying statements by the Presidency and some of his supporters that one has a duty to show respect for the incumbent head of state, both as an individual and for his office, is profoundly anti-democratic.

In a constitutional democracy the Head of State is entitled to LESS respect than the rest of us, not to more respect as the Presidency and some of his supporters sometimes argue.

This is because as the Head of State, the President is also a politician and usually the head of a political party. He has chosen to embark on a career in the public eye that is at the heart of our democracy and what he says and does is of profound importance to our democracy and to our lives. If the President says or does something to endorse homophobic violence, for example, it could embolden others to attack gay men and lesbians whose very lives might be endangered by such action.

As citizens we therefore have a rights and a duty to criticise what the President says and does because without such criticism there can hardly be any talk of real democracy. If we choose to express this criticism in harsh terms or intemperate language we might be strategically dumb. However, it should really be tough luck for the President who should not have chosen a career in politics if he was thin-skinned. Just ask Barack Obama or Tony Bliar, who have both endured extraordinary viscious personal attacks over the years. (When one types “gangster” and “Barack Obama” into Google more than a million hits appear.) As my Mother used to say: “If you are a sucker you must be prepared to be sucked.”

It might be strategically dumb to call the President a gangster, but it is not necessarily unlawful or unacceptable.

Some might argue that my view cannot be squared with “African tradition” as us Africans have a culture of respecting our leaders – no matter what they do or say. (Obviously Julius Malema will not make this argument, but that is a story for another day.) They would be wrong.

You do not have to take my word for it. Instead I could refer you to a 1998 opinion of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights which dealt with just such a case. The African Commission was set up in terms of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which South Africa has signed and ratified and is bound by, and the Commission can hear individual complaints of human rights abuses by African states and can issue authoritative findings about breaches of the African Charter.

In Media Rights Agenda, Constitutional Rights Project, Media Rights Agenda and Constitutional Rights Project vs Nigeria the Commission had to deal with the actions of the then military dictatorship in Nigeria when 50,000 copies of TELL magazine were seized by heavily armed policemen and other security officers on the printer’s premises. That week’s issue was entitled: “The Return of Tyranny – Abacha bares his fangs”. The story involved a critical analysis of certain legislation enacted by the military government which ousts the jurisdiction of the courts. The magazine had in effect called the head of state a tyrant and so action was taken against them.

The Commission had to interpret article 9 of the African Charter which states that “every individual shall have the right to receive information”; and “every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law”. It found that the Nigerian government had breached this article:

In the present case, the government has provided no evidence that seizure of the magazine was for any other reason than simple criticism of the government.  The article in question might have caused some debate and criticism of the government, but there seems to have been no information threatening to, for example, national security or public order in it. All of the legislation criticized in the article was already known to members of the public information, as laws must be, in order to be effective.

The only person whose reputation was perhaps tarnished by the article was the head of state.  However, in the lack of evidence to the contrary, it should be assumed that criticism of the government does not constitute an attack on the personal reputation of the head of state. People who assume highly visible public roles must necessarily face a higher degree of criticism than private citizens; otherwise public debate may be stifled altogether. It is important for the conduct of public affairs that opinions critical of the government be judged according to whether they represent a real danger to national security.

The African Commission is therefore of the view that unless statements critical of a Head of State threaten national security (by inciting the overthrow of the government, say) they are protected by the right to freedom of expression. Ridiculing the Head of State by, say, drawing him with a showerhead on his head can never be said to  threaten national security.

Of course, a Head of State can embark on a politically highly risky strategy of instituting a defamation claim against the person who criticised or ridiculed him, but then – as often happens with defamation cases – the President himself will be subjected to judicial scrutiny – which could backfire quite badly. Just ask Ronald Suresh Roberts.

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