PEN SA Panel at ThinkFest! On Safeguarding Freedom of Expression

11 Jul 2017
PEN SA Panel at ThinkFest! On Safeguarding Freedom of Expression

On Wednesday 5 July 2017 PEN South Africa hosted a panel at ThinkFest! as part of the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The Ntsikana Room, where the panel was hosted, is situated on the 2nd floor of the Monument where sunlight entered through the big windows on the corridor such that there was rare warmth in the Grahamstown cold winter. The discussion was hosted by Myolisi Sikupela, PEN SA Centre Co-Ordinator, and the guest speaker was Richard Pithouse, a lecturer of politics at Rhodes University, where he teaches contemporary political theory and urban studies. Pithouse also writes regularly for journals and newspapers, both print and online, and his commentary is widely read.

The topic of the panel was ‘Writing in the time of political chaos’. The discussion was framed around the recent Black First, Land First (BLF) movement protest against Tiso Blackstar editor at large Peter Bruce and the harassment of Business Day editor Tim Cohen and veteran journalist Karima Brown who had gone to Bruce’s house to offer their support. PEN SA responded to the protest in a statement and continues to monitor developments in this case, in which BLF has gone on to harass and threaten other journalists.

The panelists, Sikupela and Pithouse, grappled with a set of questions which included:

“What should the immediate response from a writer be? What kind of protest can writers stage with their pens? What are the limits of that protest? What is the power of that protest? What does the BLF protest mean for the freedom of the press in South Africa? Is this a signal of a worrying trend for the SA press, in which it will silenced for reporting on corruption?”

Sikupela started the panel by reading remarks by PEN SA President Nadia Davids, who wasn’t able to be at the event.

“PEN International’s 1948 charter, written in the ashes of a world war, declares a commitment to the inalienable right of all people to enjoy and exercise freedom of speech. It is a document that retains, globally, a profound and enduring importance. Our organisation’s focus locally and internationally, is both specific and broad; we are concerned with ensuring that our global community of writers’ expression is uncurbed and unencumbered by ‘arbitrary censorship’ while being wholly committed to fostering tolerance and mutual respect among nations and also remaining vigilantly opposed to ‘mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends’. These are enduring principles that find common cause with many of the most important political battles in South Africa today.

Last week’s events were a source of deep concern at PEN SA: we believe that there is a direct correlation between a society that supports free speech, a free, fair press and the strength of its democracy. South African journalists, writers and academics and artists have a long and proud history of speaking truth to power, of insisting on freedom of speech and expression, sometimes paying a terrible and ultimate cost for that insistence.

This panel takes place in a democratic country where a robust discussion around our national political landscape is, as ever, in effect. What PEN South Africa is most committed to, is ensuring that that the right to that conversation continues, safely, respectfully and unabated.”

Sikupela and Pithouse’s discussion took off from this text by Davids. The panelists agreed that BLF protests are threatening the thriving freedom of speech in South Africa and that no journalists’ lives should be put under pressure. That, in a democracy, this should be a right that journalists do not have to fight for.

Pithouse further pointed out that the other issue that faces the South African media is that it needs to report widely, reaching communities that are currently not being reported on with the same vigour and consistency as the middle class and the rich.

It became apparent in the discussion that PEN SA’s role in bringing awareness to the Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, Secrecy Bill and BLF protests and fostering rigorous conversations around issues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, is of utmost importance.

To end the panel, an audience member asked what PEN SA foresees as its role in standing up for freedom of the press. Sikupela explained that there are encroaches being made into freedom of the press and freedom of speech, both by civil society movements and the government, and it is in this crucial juncture that the work PEN SA does becomes important.