On bloggers’ right to freedom of expression and opinion

I have observed with dismay at the way in which the African debate had gone after Sentletse Diakanyo wrote that only black people were Africans and that white people were not. What has even been more worrying was the kind of censorship tendencies directed at him, and other bloggers too, and even having his authority and academic credentials question.

Diakanyo’s article came after a friend of mine, Koketso Moeti, asked this on Twitter: “When we refer to someone being African, do we refer to those born on African soil or is it a title limited to the black people only?”

Koketso asked this on the 26th December last year and it was after a day or two of our discussing the topic that we suggested that one of us writes a blog on the issue so that others could comment. And it was Diakanyo who offered to write a details blog post.

The debate was so interesting that comments after comments came flooding both on Diakanyo’s blog and on Twitter. The response even led to other follow-up blog posts, though others very critical of Diakanyo’s so-called ‘ka arguments’. As if that was not enough, other bloggers followed suite, with Mail & Guardian Online Editor Chris Roper, Sipho Hlongwane, Khaya Dlanga, Marius Redelinghuys and many others writing on the topic. And little did we know at the time when we started the topic on Twitter that it would even up on being discussed on radio shows on SA FM’s Talk@SAfm and Radio 702’s Talk@9.

Despite the difference of opinions on who was an African, it was sad to note that other bloggers seemed to question on whose authority Diakanyo was speaking/writing/blogging that his academic credentials were at some point questions.

A prominent blogger, Sarah Britten, asked in one of her blog posts if Diakanyo was “actually worthy of being quoted in the serious media” like in the “the Mail & Guardians and 702s of this world” because “he’s not an academic or a politician” and that there was “no clear platform from which he speaks”. She asked: “What exactly is the source of his authority? I don’t see it”.

To Britten, Diakanyo, like me, is “just a blogger” and that “(let’s face it) blogging is not the same as appearing on the opinion page of the Sunday papers.” As a blogger I found this statement as some kind of censorship in that it seemed it is only people speaking from (God knows whose) authority who could speak on behalf of others.

Of course many had disagreed with Sentletse on some of the things he said in the article and on Twitter at the time but that did not mean we had to somehow insult and censor his thoughts and or opinions and dictated to him what he had to say and not say. Again, never at any stage of our disagreement with him on Twitter on the “Who’s an African and who is not” debate did any of us thought of Diakanyo as just a “blogger” or an Africanist who thought too high of himself. We did not, and no matter how old the “who’s an African and who is not” is – we still continued to respect his views and accepted the difference of opinion that existed. This was because “it’s important to acknowledge a range of views, and it’s important that they be aired so that they can be challenged”. But not Britten. She failed to challenge Diakanyo like her peer bloggers did. Instead, she contradicted herself. Or, maybe she did not see the need to engage him at all?

Britten went on to say “all this media coverage [from the follow up blog posts to radio shows, with Radio 702 having run the debate on two consecutive days] is serving less to promote debate and more to create a potential monster” and that this resulted in Diakanyo “enjoying every minute of it”. So what then?

That Diakanyo was indeed “enjoying every minute of it” is not a crime. This media coverage could well be likened to that which Juju was “enjoying every minute of” after his controversial “kill the boer” statement, Steve Hofmeyr’s “black entitlement” and Annelie Botes’ “I’m afraid of black people and not understand them” and many others, including a farmer who was reported to having said he mistook a black person to a baboon and killed him.

Both black and white people said many worse things than what Sentletse had written. By this I am not saying Sentletse is right nor do I agree with him. But it then becomes a problem when people are seen as being censored for expressing their views and opinions. These “kak arguments” – as said Britten of Diakanyo’s – and those of other bloggers are criticised for just not “appearing on the opinion page of the Sunday papers”, a sign many equate to people not agreeing with them. It is quite clear from the tone of Britten that there was some kind of a bitterness and one is not sure if this had anything to do with “this media coverage” whose “every minute of it” Diakanyo had received and enjoyed or not. I mean, when someone says: “if he [thinks he] is clever, (then) he will leverage the frenzied response to his kak arguments and position himself as a serious commentator whose opinion on the issues of the day should be sought as a matter of course” – what does that mean? Anger? Hatred? Racism maybe? I’m just asking.

That Sentletse was expressing his right to freedom of expression and opinion, however disputed they are, does not mean we should label let alone insult or censor him as someone who sought “attention” he did not deserve because “the more coverage the media gives him, the more power he will accumulate – power he would otherwise not have”. No, it is not about power. Again, that even his academic credentials were questioned is even worrying. As a result, I therefore wonder that as a concerned citizen – do I have to speak from a certain authority when I have to express my views and or opinions irrespective of how uncomfortable they may seem to its readers and the society at large. Doesn’t having “no sources of authority” to express a view or opinion and therefore not saying anything at all amount to ‘self-censorship’?

Yes, Diakanyo may be “just a blogger” like myself but that does not mean he always has to be ‘politically correct’. And like myself, I believe Sentletse does understand very well, by the way, that “blogging is not the same as appearing on the opinion page of the Sunday papers” and it is therefore not a criminal offense to blog as “just a blogger” and write about anything just like it is not a criminal offense when his academic credentials and authority are questioned.

Lastly, it is not by blogging – and who cares whether such views appear on “opinion page of the Sunday papers” on not – and getting “all this media coverage” that creates “a potential monster” we bloggers now seem to have become and whose opinions are sometimes censored, but that it is this “censorship” of bloggers’ rights to freedom of opinions and expression as enshrined in the South African Constitution and failure to allow these “potential monsters” [Sentletse and myself] to surface and express their opinions and views that is even more dangerous.

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