Insult laws in South Africa?

MyADSL has reported that the SABC is acting as if South Africa has a body of so-called "insult laws" in force.  It recently shelved a documentary that may have cast an unfavourable light on President Thabo Mbeki:

The withdrawal by the SABC of the “unauthorised??? documentary on President Thabo Mbeki was clearly motivated by insult-law considerations, when one reads that CEO Dali Mpofu canned the 24-minute production because it was defamatory and that it was unbalanced (withdrawal-speak for inaccurate), classic descriptions under those laws.

But the concept of insult-law considerations coming into play was voiced by Thami Mazwai, a member of the SABC governing board, in his article on these pages, Sense in SABC’s doccie decision (June 23) defending the decision to withdraw the documentary.

Mazwai wrote that the SABC, “by virtue of being the public broadcaster, must be careful how it projects the office of the presidency. This office is more than the person of President Thabo Mbeki … in business parlance, it is the goodwill on the balance sheet of SA Inc???.

“It is for this reason that countries, for instance, those in the developing world, have laws to protect the integrity of the president. This is not about protecting the person, but it is about the integrity of the highest office in the land???. He said it was possible in the developed world to separate the person from the office but not in the developing world, where they are lumped together and if the president is corrupt, then the country is damned.

One reading of that statement is that Mazwai believes it would be inappropriate to expose the corruptness of a president. This is the man responsible for media matters on the SABC board charged with upholding freedom of expression and editorial professionalism.

The difficulty with such measures (and certainly with legislation designed to prevent any negative comments on public officials) is that they represent inroads into our right to freedom of expression; compromise journalistic integrity and represent an upside down view of our public officials.  To paraphrase the character V in the movie "V for Vendetta", people don’t serve their governments, governments serve their people.

Public office is to be afforded a degree of respect just as any citizen is to be afforded respect by their government.  This doesn’t mean that public office bearers ought to be protected from criticism.  If we start censoring those who would criticise government then we are on a very slippery slope that could take us pretty close to our northern neighbour.

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