Sunday, 07 September 2008

Freedom of Speech

In an article published in My Digital Life I explored certain aspects of freedom of speech. This topic aroused some debate.

The main discussion centred on whether there should be limits to freedom of speech. Some hold the view that freedom of speech should be absolute. It is better to know what the extremists are saying than to drive them underground.

But there is another aspect. What about hate-speech? How do you deal with speech that incites people to violence?

One example of the dilemma is illustrated in the speeches of Julius Malema - the president of the ANC Youth League, the division of South Africa's ruling party. Controversy erupted a few weeks ago when Malema stated in a speech that he would "kill for Zuma". Considerable anger was evident as a response to these words. Who would he kill? Are we on the hit list?

Malema promised not to use these words again, but followed with a statement that the counter revolutionary forces would be eliminated. It turns out that he didn't mean that either. He meant "removed".

Words are no mere words. They are powerful weapons. Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can really harm me.

In the context of South Africa which emerged from being a totalitarian state to a democracy just 14 years ago, it is difficult to support any form of censorship or prohibitions against freedom of speech.

There was very little opportunity to debate anything in those days. The media was muzzled. The population was muzzled. Books were banned. Films were cut or banned. Even songs fell victim to this tyranny.

Today, there is freedom of speech. It is guaranteed in the country's constitution. But hate-speech, racism and incitement to violence are exceptions.

But the right to freedom of speech means that we are responsible for what we say. This freedom should be used responsibly.

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