Beyond the right to freedom of expression: the limitations and responsibility of the media

From the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France to signal jamming in South African parliament, journalists all around the world have had to consider the meaning of freedom of speech, as well as the limits and responsibilities that come with having it. Satire features prominently on this year’s National Arts Festival programme, and press freedom remains a relevant topic. A Think!Fest roundtable on freedom of expression brought together four women to discuss their experiences and thoughts on the matter.

Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson, Sophie Marsaudon
Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson, Sophie Marsaudon

Sophie Marsaudon from Radio France Internationale (RFI) began the discussion by reliving her personal experience of being a journalist in France at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack. For her, the attack on the cartoonists was an attack on journalism.

Heather Robertson, editor of the Herald and the Weekend Post, agreed that journalists, particularly the young ones, are indeed being bullied, intimidated and interfered with. As an editor, she has been accused by more than one political party as being a mouthpiece for the other. Rather than having one political party against another, it’s now more of a political party against the media, she said. While journalists are under attack, they cannot respond by doing nothing and must always strive to speak truth to power. “The ultimate enemy is not businesses or government, but apathy,” Robertson explained.

However, we cannot talk about freedom of expression without considering the responsibility to speak in a manner that is free from hate speech and does not infringe on other rights. The relationship between rights and the violation of those rights is complicated, according to Gabriella Razzano, head of legal research at the Open Democracy Advice Centre. Sheniece Linderboom, acting Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute and an attorney by trade, agreed, stating that courts deal with instances of hate speech on a case by case basis, and so dealing with issues of press freedom is not clear cut.

Razzano believes that while the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a tragedy, they did begin important debates on press freedom. Perhaps now that people are talking, there can be more engagement, communication and listening. A prime example of the value of dialogue can be found in the aftermath of a Zapiro cartoon that was published in the Mail & Guardian and found to be offensive by the Muslim Judicial Council. A dialogue between Zapiro and the MJC, facilitated by Nic Dawes, ensued.

“A diversity of ideas is something we want, but it requires everyone to be invested in this idea,” says Razzano. The problem lies in getting everyone to be invested in the idea that all voices count. Not all voices are represented in the media, which also plays a role in how we understand things, according to Linderboom. People want to be heard and when they aren’t, they become frustrated and protest to be heard and then the media reports on that, she explains. The importance of genuine listening could not be emphasised enough, with Razzano agreeing that citizens can’t act on their rights when no one is listening.

When the floor was opened to comments, an audience member felt that freedom of expression is emphasised but not the responsibility, and that as consumers of media, we don’t see this responsibility in the media. Robertson responded, saying she believes that ultimately the readers are the bosses and that journalists have to serve them with honesty and integrity.

It is “not just about rights, but how we act as people in relation to those rights,” said Razzano, echoing the conclusion of the debate: a reminder that regardless of the tension between press freedom and hate speech, every person is human and deserves to be treated as such. We need to act with understanding and respect for others, and even in the face of hate speech, we cannot react with violence and the killing of others.

Speakers engaged with audience and answered questions long after the discussion had ended
Speakers engaged with audience members and answered questions long after the discussion had ended.
Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson and Sophie Marsaudon with Ambassador of France to South Africa, Elisabeth Barbier
Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson and Sophie Marsaudon with Ambassador of France to South Africa, Elisabeth Barbier

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