“If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Paarl Web, a subsidiary of Naspers, printed R3 million worth of party propaganda for Mugabe after Caxton declined the deal. Business Day reported the story, and now there is some uproar about this.

We are, admittedly, dealing with a tough scenario here. I assume there are very few Mugabe supporters amongst Thought Leader readers, so it might be tempting to create our own, isolated, rules for how Freedom of Expression should be interpreted.

The written word is a strong communicator. It can be heated, biased, derogatory, inflammatory and inaccurate. But it also allows for reflection, thought, and personal introspection. It invites discussion, argument and calls for an opinion, informed or otherwise. Above all, it is passive and should be encouraged as a primary source of opinion making, especially in a country as volatile as Zimbabwe.

If publishers take away Mugabe’s right to publish pamphlets on the eve of his election, they are taking away Zimbabwe’s right to a fair and due process.

For starters, it is not the publishers’, or our right to do so. Had South Africa issued nation wide sanctions against Zimbabwe, the scenario would be different, and we would be obligated to follow our country’s stance.

We should also not get confused with arguments that cite unfair elections due to Mugabe’s actions. These two factors — his right to a fair election, and his abuse of that right — are actually not related. In the most simplistic terms, let me say that two wrongs do not make a right. By interfering with the right of Mugabe’s supporters to read his propaganda, we would be also be guilty of rigging the outcome.

Noam Chmosky, to whom the sub-headline of this post can be attributed, also said:

“If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

(As an interesting aside, the quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is incorrectly attributed to Voltaire. It was actually phrased by Beatrice Hall, a writer, in 1906 when she wrote about Voltaire.)

Admittedly, there are problems with freedom of speech. For starters, there is no guarantee that all points of view will get equal hearing. Did Tsvangirai have R3 million to print his own pamphlets? I don’t know. There is also no guarantee that the truth will prevail. Freedom of speech can itself lead to violence, whether in Zimbabwe, Nazi Germany or your child’s school hall. It can propagate racisms, sexism and religious attacks.

There is no pretty solution, although scores of books have been written to try and come up with one. But I do believe that none of these shortcomings, horrid as they may be, outweigh the horrors associated with lack of freedom of speech. And although I also cannot argue that Paarl Web took this thought process when deciding to print the pamphlets (in fact, I suspect it was a pure business decision), I am pleased that that is the stance they took.

We should not ostracize Paarl Web or Naspers for printing Mugabe’s order. What we should do is encourage them to donate the profits to any opposing party so that they too can have an opportunity to let their views be known, and sway the “truth will prevail” argument.

But we should not interfere with freedom of speech, much as many governments would like us to do. It’s a slippery slope, and the consequences could be disastrous.


  • Eve Dmochowska spends her day playing on and with the Internet, and thinks it is a rather fun way to make money. She is the founder of Crowdfund, a crowd sourced fund to help local online startups get off the ground, and of the Geekspace, Joburgs first hot desking space for geeks. She is also the co-founder of The Broadband Bible which helps SAfricans find the perfect ADSL plan and the Airtime Bible, which compares the costs of cellphone contracts.


Eve Dmochowska

Eve Dmochowska spends her day playing on and with the Internet, and thinks it is a rather fun way to make money. She is the founder of Crowdfund,...

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