Veiled threats against free speech are an attack on democracy

Professor Glenda Gray said in an interview with News24 on May 22 that: "It is almost as if someone is sucking regulations out of their thumb and implementing rubbish."

Her comments sparked a nationwide debate on freedom of speech, particularly academic freedom.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in section 16 of the Constitution and therefore it must be protected from political meddling.

The public debate was stoked further after acting health director-general Anban Pillay wrote to the SA Medical Research Council insisting that it should investigate Gray for making false allegations which "cause confusion in the media and are likely to erode public support for behavioural change".

To ask an institution to investigate its member because of comments made in public is an injustice to democracy itself.

One of the presuppositions of democracy is the robust exchange of ideas, which requires free speech.

Free speech is not a convenient afterthought, it is a precondition of the discourse itself.

This discourse must therefore remain free from political interference regardless of how much inconvenience, embarrassment or offence it causes the government or political class.

A report by the UN Human Rights Council - Human Rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela - noted that since 2016 the government of Venezuela has implemented a strategy "aimed at neutralising, repressing and criminalising political opponents and people critical of the government". Such an intervention restricts the democratic space.

This kind of government remains in power through limiting vigorous public discourse, which is inherently an immoral method to remain in power.

This is particularly concerning because the government can control the narrative about important issues.

Political repression always begins subtly.

The government must always test the level of public compliance in small dosages to assess how much acceptance would exist should it need to create policy around any given issue.

For instance, the question about expropriation without compensation was not an issue for 20 years, until part of the public displayed a willingness to illegally occupy land.

Thereafter the government felt comfortable proposing the effective destruction of the constitutional right to private property ownership.

The indirect threat to Gray is testing our level of acceptance of the repression of free speech.

The governing party issued a statement wherein it alluded that nefarious capitalist forces were inspiring sentiments such as Gray's, and that these sentiments were malicious and intended to "undermine our leaders".

Public discourse neither constitutes malicious attacks, nor does it imply that anyone wants to drive wedges between partnerships.

Even if they did, their utterances would be protected under section 16 of the Constitution.

Public discourse should never be policed or inadvertently threatened because the egos of our so-called leaders bruise easily.

I stand with Gray in her attempt to create discourse around the Covid-19 crisis.

Critical dialogue is the constitutional responsibility of all South Africans, particularly those in positions of power.

The silencing of dissent in a democracy violates the oath of public office in South Africa.

Some argue that limiting harmful rhetoric is justified because it protects society, but it would serve us well to recall the times when the apartheid regime enforced censorship.

Many feared speaking out against the regime because they could be jailed, brutalised or dehumanised.

Our democracy needs more free speech, regardless of how it makes the government feel.

Moreover, the most effective recourse to counter harmful speech is information.

So far, no scientific evidence has been provided to disprove Gray’s comments. Instead, her integrity is undermined through veiled threats to discredit the essence of her contributions.

That essence, unquestionably, is freedom itself in the form of free expression.

Freedom of expression reinforces other human rights which allow South Africa to progress.

Any attempt to quell either Gray's or any other expression is a direct attempt to take South Africa back to a darker form of repression.

Former president Nelson Mandela said: "There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires."

Freedom is the ultimate desire of any democracy, and we must uphold the Constitution to protect that desire.

Ultimately, section 16 of the Constitution exists to protect South Africans from political despotism.

It is therefore important to advocate against political meddling in the affairs of discourse in this country.

Democracy itself it at stake, for without it we are doomed to the hellish abyss of South Africa's dark past.

Salie is studying towards a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Unisa. He is a classical liberal activist whose mission is to influence the next generation to value the ideals of liberty and equality

This article was first published on City Press on 04 June 2020
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