Martin Williams
3 minute read
4 Jun 2014
9:00 am

Publish and be damned

Martin Williams

I am sorry Eye Witness News (EWN) apologised and removed last week's Congress of Clowns cartoon from its website.

DA city councillor for Joburg Martin Williams

Coming two years after City Press capitulated over the Zuma Spear painting, this represents another climb-down in the face of governing-party bullying. The light of free speech grows dimmer.

Was the cartoon offensive? Yes – but to whom? Being offensive is not enough reason to invoke censorship. Even the politically correct European Court of Human Rights says free speech is “applicable not only to information or ideas that are favourably received, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb”.

Obviously people in Zuma’s Cabinet hate to be portrayed as clowns, even if they are frequently described in similar terms by critics.

The contentious issue is the portrayal of vo-ters. The shading in that part of the cartoon is darker. If that’s racist, the debate is supposedly ended because free speech conventionally does not permit racism. I didn’t think it was racist. However, “the people” are depicted as stupid because they keep voting for the same clowns.

Regarding people as ignorant because they vote for the ANC may be misguided. Yet it is a widespread view, which reaches its apotheosis when critics invoke Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

You keep voting ANC. They keep letting you down – yet you carry on voting for them. Therefore you must be mad, so the argument goes.

Actually, it’s not that simple. Several commentators have tried to point out how this line of thinking is flawed. Their most frequent retort is: “You just don’t get it.” Indeed we don’t – and we’d like it explained.

Justice Malala did a fine job of bridging the gap in his Monday column. You’d have to read the whole column to appreciate the context. Here’s the crux: “The ANC is the repository of the hopes of many for the final eradication of … indignity and its memories.”

We should try to appreciate the sentiment and take into account what Malala calls “the basket of considerations” which voters look at. Unless we have sincerely tried to understand from their perspective we should be cautious about calling other people stupid.

The cartoonists, Dr Jack (Swanepoel) and John (Curtis), added insult to injury by labelling the voters poephols (arseholes). Such crudity is unnecessary. I did not like it. If I were still an editor I might have suggested the crudity be toned down. But it is quite a different matter to go from there to the kind of censorship which is taking hold in South Africa.

We publish. Then when people make enough noise we remove the offending item and apologise – which is in effect giving in to bullies.

EWN’s apology was a mishmash which tried to present the editors as champions of press freedom – which they are not. Comments on social media suggest readers are not easily fooled.

There’s a lesson going back to the sacking of columnist David Bullard. Editors should know what they are publishing. If they are happy to publish, they should be ready to defend.

All this post-facto nonsense about re-evaluating systems cannot hide the fact that some people have been unaware of what they are supposedly editing. The motto is publish and be damned, not publish and be cowed.