“We support a free press and we encourage journalists to write about us. But if they write rubbish, we will find them and hang them in a public square.” This, surprisingly, is not what Helen Zille said, but it might well have been. She said: “I will defend journalists’ RIGHT to write rubbish. But I will not remain silent about the rubbish they write. Others also have rights.”
Zille said this during a stomach-churning attack on journalists Carien du Plessis (City Press) and Shanti Aboobaker (Independent Newspapers).
What sparked this unfortunate and disparaging rant was an article Du Plessis wrote about the DA and land reform and a tweet. Here is how it went.
All hell broke loose.
From then on, Zille let out the big guns. She tweeted that: “[Carien] is a seriously biased journalist desperate to curry favour with the left because of her background.” She tweeted again that: “[Carien] is trying so desperately to hide the Missus class from which she comes from. Shame.”
Minutes later, she tweeted that: “[Carien] is so terrified that she will be damned by her own complexion that she has to bend over to prove her political correctness.”
Zille then accused Carien of being an agent for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). She tweeted: “[Carien] once told me she was planning to vote for EFF, and it is quite obvious in her writing.”
When somebody (@noblinkers1) tweeted that: “agent Carien come out of the closet, it’s the right thing to do,’ Zille responded affirmatively: “She is [out] already. [She] loves red.” (“Red” is presumably a reference to the EFF, which is sometimes called the “red berets” or “red brigade”.)
This is a wild departure from Zille and the DA’s supposed liberal dispensation. What greater sacrilege to a liberal than attacking journalists and press freedom?
If Zille’s outburst shows anything — other than that Zille is a compulsive tweeter who gives little thought to the impact of her public rants — it shows that she either misunderstands freedom of press or she is willing to spin its meaning if and when it suits her.
Freedom of press does not only implore us to create an environment where journalists can write freely, without fear, favour or prejudice — but it also invites us to engage critically with journalistic endeavours. Instead of engaging critically with Du Plessis’s writing, Zille resorted to vitriol.
She did not bother to produce evidence of Du Plessis’s bias and unprofessionalism. She decided to prosecute her and Aboobaker in the court of public opinion. This is dangerous and damaging to the press institution.
By dubbing Du Plessis an “agent” of the red party, she invited her army of 382 000 plus Twitter followers to vilify and disparage Du Plessis and Aboobaker in public, without reference to their supposed lies.
A few months ago, South Africans debated legislative regulation of the press. Civil society, including the Democratic Alliance, opposed regulation of the press by the government because of fears of “chilling effects”. The reason is simple: a free press must self-regulate. The South African press does just that.
There is a press ombudsman to investigate complaints of unprofessional or unethical behaviour by a professional journalist according to the press code. When that fails, there are courts. These are credible avenues Zille should have used to impeach Du Plessis’s supposed unprofessional, unethical and biased reporting.
But Zille didn’t and in her own words, she didn’t have to. Because, when you have a public army of sheepish followers to support you, you can be a law unto yourself.
We must all endeavour to defend and advance the Constitution and the rights and values it entrenches. This obligation belies all of us, more so the official opposition in Parliament.