Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
26 May 2009

David Bullard’s weird view of press freedom

David Bullard, that pretentious (and previously witty) old colonialist who used to be a columnist for the Sunday Times before he was sacked for writing a deeply insulting  and racist column, has launched a scathing attack on fellow columnist and self-proclaimed public intellectual Xolela Mangcu.

Bullard, who is now a staunch defender of President Jacob Zuma, does not appear to see the irony in him calling Mangcu “immodest” while displaying the kind of immodesty that would make a self-obsessed Hollywood starlet blush. He also seems blissfully unaware of how obnoxious (and potentially racist) he is being by complaining about an “uppity” black man.

In any case, I was struck by the following paragraph in which Bullard displays an embarrasing ignorance of press freedom.

When I was sacked from the Sunday Times last year (a CV entry I am particularly proud of incidentally) both Zapiro and Max du Preez weighed in with the view that it was a good thing. Since they are both supposed to be staunch supporters of press freedom this rather surprised me until someone much wiser than I pointed out that people like them only support press freedom if it is exercised by those of whom they approve.

Bullard seems to believe that he was censored by the Sunday Times when he was fired and that this constituted an infringement of press freedom. He is not the first person – and will surely not be the last – to make the argument that where a private institution declines to provide a platform for an individual to express his or her views, it is infringing on that person’s freedom of expression.

I think this is wrong.

No one has prohibited Bullard from expressing his opinions. During the apartheid years those who expressed politically “undesirable” views were “banned”, newspapers prohibited from quoting certain individuals and other newspapers harassed or even closed. This has not happened in his case. He is free to say what he thinks and to try and convince any newspaper editor to publish his little missives, or to publish them himself on the Internet.

Press freedom does not mean that an editor can be forced to publish the views the newspaper does not like, find boring, offensive or stupid. If that were to be the case, government departments would be able to force newspapers to publish the often deathly boring press releases about this or that Deputy Minister visiting a toilet seat factory in Koekenaap or delivering a speech on the importance of goat farming in the Klein Karoo.

No one has a right to have a column in a newspaper – not even someone with the high selfesteem of Mr Bullard.

There will be those who disagree with the decision of the editor of the Sunday Times to fire Bullard, but they cannot claim that his right to press freedom has been infringed.

Similarly, if I organise a seminar and I decide not to invite Thabo Mbeki, John Hlophe, or dan Roodt, I have every right to do so. I do not have the right to stop these gentlemen from speaking at the Orania Koeksistervereniging or the Native Club, of course, but by denying them a platform I am merely expressing my own views about them and their views.

Newspaper editors make decisions every day about what to publish and what not. Some of these choices might be unwise and shortsighted, but forcing them to publish certain views would be in contravention of their press freedom.

One could have a profitable discussion about who is allowed to speak in our society and who not. Newspaper editors don’t always serve the interest of democracy and often publish columnists and news that serve their own interests or the interests of their capitalist bosses who pay their salaries. Why, for example, don’t most of us know the names of the leadership of the Landless People’s Movement or many of the other social movements that challenge the capitalist consesus in our society?

In a free society the way to deal with this is to try and find other ways for the dissemination of information and ideas that we might think important. Freedom can be a bugger and those with power will often deploy it to stay in charge, but with some hard work and ingenuity one can begin to break the hegemonic hold some think they have on the flow of information. One might not get paid as handsomely as Mr Bullard claimed to have been paid, but that is surely a small price to pay for standing up for your principles.

The more voices the better – but they really do not all have to be in the same publication.

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