Ferial Haffajee wrote powerfully about how she has been silenced after a series of vile attacks on social media. It is essential reading, not just to understand the human impact of spreading hate on social media, or the repugnant sexist dimension these issues tend almost always to share, but also because it highlights a deeply worrying issue for our emerging democracy. Fundamentally, the attacks on Haffajee are about a new form of media censorship.
The warning signs have been there for a long time, and we know that many other women in the media are routinely exposed to abusive language for expressing an opinion — many of them will tell you it comes with the territory. Gender-based violence is after all tragically endemic to South Africa.
What makes Haffajee's case different, is that she has been brave enough to talk about her enforced silence. Many of us these days are likely rather to not express an opinion on social media for fear not of disagreement necessarily, but of the vile and vitriol that gets spat back at us — so we would rather just be silent. Haffajee must be applauded for speaking out.
This isn't an issue about the EFF or Julius Malema's utterances specifically; it is about the new form of censorship on social media that all political parties — and influencers on social media — need to take on board and commit to addressing. "All for one and one for all" was a motto made famous in the 1844 novel "The Three Musketeers", but it is an apt motto to apply in a human-rights context, where an injustice to one is an injustice to all.
In the current context, when the impact of the vitriol is highlighted, it isn't just one editor who is harmed, insulted and her dignity violated — it is anyone else who seeks to disagree; it is anyone else who seeks to express an opinion and share a view that may not be liked by some, precisely because they too may be silenced. It gives strength to the fruitcakes and fascists, the weak of mind, poor of argument, the misogynists, the racists — who see that all one needs is brute social media force to silence those who disagree.
Just as we know there are some people who will be spiteful, hurtful and hateful, we also know trolls are a reality — and there are techniques for dealing with them. An example is the case of Basetsana and Romeo Khumalo, who are taking action against rumours spread about them. In South Africa, as we head to elections, we know that going after an editor to silence them isn't just a group of trolls — it is, or can be linked to, utterances from a political leader, or to a deliberate campaign to silence, divert or misinform.
As Turkish academic Zeynep Tufekci wrote: "The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself.
"As a result, they don't look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out.
"They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources. They look like bot-fuelled campaigns of trolling and distraction, or piecemeal leaks of hacked materials, meant to swamp the attention of traditional media."
With the Bell Pottinger misinformation campaign still fresh in our memory, we have already witnessed some of these elements in South Africa. The rise of misinformation is real, and so too are online attacks of our journalists and editors.
Political parties — who rely on the right to freedom of expression to garner votes, to persuade people to vote for them; who rely on fair and credible elections; who rely on media to cover their campaigns — have a clear and fundamental responsibility to challenge and do all in their power to help prevent attacks on media; even on those they disagree with.
Parties and their leaders cannot expect that there is one rule for them and another for the public — if they are not happy with the way media cover them or their issues, there are a wide variety of avenues of recourse, from co- and self-regulatory mechanisms, to the South African Human Rights Commission and the courts.
Being silent when media are attacked, either by party members or people acting in some misplaced loyalty to the party, undermines the very rights on which they depend for their campaigns to be run fairly.
There are a number of legal remedies available to Haffajee, and we hope she exercises some of them, but she isn't the first and won't be the last to be silenced in this manner. We need to shift our behaviour, and for political parties especially, to pronounce clearly and often how they will not tolerate attacks being carried out in their name.
With tensions likely to rise as we approach elections, not only is it essential that political parties discourage and act against any members who bully, harass or abuse the media and/or general public, but they also need to ensure the language they use does not incite their members to begin with.
These are not new criteria. The same principles can currently be found in our Electoral Code of Conduct. What is new is that the same principles need to be applied to an online environment, and outside an election period.
We call on all political parties to take a stand against online abuse and cyberbullying, and to commit to addressing the issues with their members and actively discouraging their members or people acting in their name from behaving in such a manner.
Social media platforms also have a clear role to play, and we encourage the public to report and keep reporting any abuse and or cyberbullying they experience.
There is a view that the big platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, don't take the issue seriously or don't act. While this may be the experience of some people, the only way we will ensure greater action from the social media platforms is if we all report abuse when we see it or are subjected to it.
On an individual level, if you experience cyberbullying here are a few practical suggestions from social media lawyer Diana Schwarz.
If you are the subject of an online attack you can take the following steps:
1. Block the harasser on all social media platforms.
2. Keep the evidence. Save texts, emails, online conversations or voicemails.
3. Any threats of imminent harm/danger/violence, such as for example one sent to Haffajee — "Stop misleading pple u bitch...fuck u and go back to Europe...this is not your country asshole...u deserve a bullet in the head" (by a user whose account has since been suspended by Twitter) — can be immediately reported to the South African Police Service (SAPS) as a case of intimidation, as it may constitute imminent danger under the Intimidation Act 72 of 1982, which is defined as "situations that pose a direct and immediate danger to the individual affected by the action".
4. Report the tweet/DM/post to the platform on which it appears. Most social media platforms have specific procedures in place that deal with harassment, cyberbullying/cyberstalking, hate speech and threats of violence. The platform will remove the tweet/DM/post and red flag the user for such conduct. The user may even be removed from the platform altogether.
5. A protection order can be obtained in terms of the Protection from Harassment Act 2011. The purpose of the act is to protect victims harassed online and offline. Any person can apply to the court for an interim protection order, which will be granted as long as the court is satisfied that the perpetrator has harassed or is harassing the applicant and harm may be caused.
This act can further force electronic service providers to hand over the name, surname, identity number and address of the person to whom the IP address, email or cellphone number belongs. This is particularly useful in the cases of anonymous harassment.
6. Seek legal advice on the legal actions available to you.