by Iqbal Jassat
Media freedoms constitute fundamental rights in most constitutional democracies.
This holds particularly true for South Africa, which for decades had been subject to the whims and fancies of an archaic censor board, correctly lampooned as hooded white men equipped with huge scissors.
To dispense with these rights would be the equivalent of turning the clock back to the Apartheid era.
The right to freedom of speech and a free media, in addition to freedom of association and expression, formed the bedrock of South Africa’s liberation movements.
Yet these are under attack as the case of Professor Shabir Moosa, a highly respected medical doctor, demonstrates.
He was subjected to a vicious attack in a so-called opinion piece in the pro-Israel paper, The Jewish Report, authored by the Chairman of its Board, Howard Sackstein.
What triggered Sackstein (aka Professor of Propaganda for Zionist Israel) to attack Dr. Moosa?
The highly respected medical academic, Dr. Moosa was accused of being a “propagandist” for expressing outrage against Israelis seen cheering a fire at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
His dismay was expressed on a WhatsApp group he manages for medical interns.
Clearly Dr. Moosa’s practice of free speech was intolerable as far as the Jewish Report was concerned.
Dr. Moosa lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman against the paper, seeking redress and a right to reply.
In a shrift response, the Deputy Press Ombud dismissed his complaint.
Prof. Moosa, as is his constitutional right, sought support from the Palestine Solidarity Alliance who then enlisted the assistance of Hassen Lorgat, a social justice activist who cut his teeth in the South African trade union movement and other CSOs.
A cursory glance of the time-line reveals failures by the Public Advocate in the Ombud office to protect Prof. Moosa’s right to express support for the cause of Palestinians.
Lorgat’s review of the entire episode found the dismissal to be unfair for having failed to defend Dr. Moosa, whom he believed was subjected to a malicious attack by Sackstein.
In a detailed and comprehensive submission Lorgat launched an appeal against the ruling, which has yet to be adjudicated.
However, and to underline my point about the viciously aggressive policies practiced by the Nats, the Jewish Report’sresponse to the appeal panel, sounds eerily familiar.
Instead of playing the ball they played the man. The SAJR editor wrote:
“Mr Lorgat is a hardened anti-Israel activist, bringing his fourth frivolous and vexatious action against the SA Jewish Report in the past twelve months.
“As an opponent of the very existence of the State of Israel, Mr. Lorgat abuses the Press Council and this honourable court in pursuit of his own narrow political objectives.
“He attempts to use these institutions as a blunt weapon to attempt to silence and censor those whose view’s he opposes. His approach is abusive, malicious and vexatious. His motives are purely political and subvertive [sic] of the South African Constitution and the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
One hopes the irony of this attack on Lorgat which designates him as “frivolous”, “vexatious”, “malicious” and a “hardened anti-Israel activist” is not lost by the Appeal Panel as it deliberates whether the equally vicious targeting of Dr. Moosa by the “Professor of Propaganda” was a classic case of malicious misrepresentation.
If indeed it was an appalling intimidatory attempt to silence and prevent Dr. Moosa from exercising his right to freely raise critical questions about Israel’s conduct, whether on his blog or the medical WhatsApp group, the Jewish Reportneeds to be sanctioned appropriately.
The reality is that Israel is guilty of crimes against humanity, of the grotesque type best understood by masses of South African victims.
Despite the empathy felt by many in this country who are shocked by horrible crimes committed daily against Palestinians, their solidarity in pursuit of truth and justice is regularly maligned as “malicious”.
It brings to mind the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa to attain fundamental freedoms that was met with harsh repressive measures imposed violently by the former white minority regime.
It was an era defined by apartheid propaganda, which sought to overwhelm public opinion on a narrative that not only promoted racist discrimination, but justified it.
Challenging or opposing white supremacy - whether in words or deeds - resulted in banning and imprisonment.
Murders and massacres including torture and deaths in detention framed an ugly past, riddled as it was in blood and gory details.
Though democracy has allowed a harvest of freedoms, as South Africans our ability to export gains underwritten in the Bill of Rights, especially to Occupied Palestine, is severely limited.
The impediments arise from a poorly scripted global order in which the powerful North dictate the fortunes (misfortunes) of the world.
This unfairness is evident in the undemocratic structure of the United Nations Security Council.
It would be better to describe it as the “tyranny of the big 5” who are able to hold the world hostage via their veto powers.
This is further compounded by the fact that the occupying power Israel, as the last Apartheid outpost, wields huge influence in the body-politic of America, internally and externally.
As in the case of Apartheid South Africa’s outlandish assault on freedoms, Israel too thrives on similar and worse practices.
The current outlawing of six Palestinian society organizations as “terrorist” is proof of this.
Though utterly irrational, it explains why Israel has invested unlimited resources into “Hasbara” or propaganda outfits.
As if in anticipation of a rebuke, the Jewish Report’s membership of the SA Press Council has not been renewed.
It says so in its response that membership “has lapsed”.
An extraordinary childish move that smacks of an attempt to evade sanction.
Yet the fact is that Dr. Moosa’s grievance can neither be wished away nor lapse.
Iqbal Jassat is Executive Member, Media Review Network, Johannesburg, South Africa