ANC Backlash on the Exercise of Free Expression

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) has noted with concern the unwarranted zealous backlash by the African National Congress (ANC) to the rightful exercise of free expression by individuals in South Africa.
The matter in question relates to an open letter addressed to the President, Jacob Zuma written by Kenny Kunene. The letter expressed his personal disappointment with the leadership of the ANC and expressed his dissatisfaction with several matters including the recent allegations of impropriety with regard to the use of state funds in renovations and upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s personal residence in Nkandla. It is our view that citizens of this country have a right to hold views and opinions about these matters and to share them.
A press statement released by the ANC characterised Kunene’s comments as part of “...provocations and lies that are touted daily with the intention to harm and degrade the person of President Jacob Zuma and by necessary implication the ANC...” The FXI views this as an apparent attempt to intimidate and scare people from freely expressing themselves. We believe as a ruling party that subscribes to freedom of expression, the ANC should encourage expression that is provocative and critical as long as it does not incite violence, as it serves as an opportunity to create dialogue and discussion between members of the public.
The statement makes further reference to insults against a sitting President as criminal offences in other parts of the world. This recognition is a misplaced and fundamentally flawed conception that is clearly geared towards instilling fear among the citizenry. As a progressive democracy, South Africa should be leading calls for the abolition of insults laws across the continent, instead of suggesting a ‘liking of the draconian pieces of legislation, that are increasing getting shunned upon. As such, the labelling of a citizen’s right to expression as ‘impunity’ and an abuse of ‘democratic privilege’ is disconcerting. As the FXI, we believe that free expression can never be held as a privilege but as a right that should be expanded to all and not merely a preservation of the few elite.
We are alarmed at the ANC’s apparent wish to have an insult law incorporated in the South African legal system. It clearly acclaims the insult laws used elsewhere and if the ANC wants those laws to be models for South Africans to follow, it will mean that any criticism – not even approaching insult -- of a president or other high officials in government would be punished by lengthy prison terms and other penalties. The FXI is deeply disturbed at the ANC’s flagrant disregard of the various campaigns against insult and criminal defamation laws that have been launched in recent years in Africa by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) and, most important of all, the Pan-African Parliament (PAP). Ignoring that parliament’s campaign is to be condemned because the ANC government is a member of that organisation and its campaign was launched only a few weeks ago in May.
Despite this, we are, however, encouraged by the acknowledgement from the ANC that freedom of expression is a vital component in building a sustainable and vibrant democracy. It is therefore our position that the ANC should respect this constitutionally enshrined right.
Even though the FXI strongly believes the right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right and it has its limitations, the institute fails to find any need for limitations in the letter under discussion. Limitations to free expression are clearly articulated in the constitution and are geared towards ensuring that the expression is within the confines of the law and does not encroach on the constitutional rights of others.
The ANC should therefore be careful when evoking the need for such limitations because governments have in the history of mankind used the same excuse to deny citizens the very rights that are enshrined in the constitution.
About the Freedom of Expression Institute:
Freedom of Expression Institute is a not-for-profit organisation that was established in 1994 to protect and foster the right to freedom of expression and to oppose censorship. Its vision is a society where everyone enjoys freedom of expression and the right to access and disseminate information.

- Phenyo Dean Butale is Executive Director at the Freedom of Expression Institute.

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