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The Jewish Report Editorial

Free speech - or free-for-all?

  • Geoff mugshot
After former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, Talia Sasson, a lawyer in Israel’s state attorney’s office, headed up a government team to investigate the legal approach to incitement and hate crimes.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Sep 17, 2014
 

It consisted of the internal security services (Shabak), IDF and state attorney’s office and went on for nine years. Sasson spoke about it recently at Limmud in Johannesburg.

Prior to the assassination, while implementation of the interim agreement with the PLO was underway, vicious street protests occurred where Rabin was publicly called a traitor deserving of death for accepting the Oslo Accords and agreeing to remove Jewish settlements as part of a peace process with the Palestinians.

The question facing Sasson’s team was how - from a legal perspective - both freedom of speech and democracy could be preserved in situations when they seemed contradictory.

Freedom of speech demands that people may say whatever they want, even if others don’t like it. Yet when people are calling for the prime minister or someone else to be killed, there must be a red line beyond which this cannot be allowed - which becomes a reduction of democracy. Although it is also, says Sasson, paradoxically a defence of democracy.

In describing the period leading up to the assassination, she said: “I was in meetings with the government every two weeks about implementing the interim agreement. Once at a meeting with the attorney general three weeks before the assassination, Rabin started by addressing the attorney general: “I saw on TV a person standing in front of the people of Israel and saying, ‘We have reached the badge and we will reach the man’,” - a direct threat to Rabin’s life.

"Rabin asked the attorney general: “What are you doing about it? This is a criminal offence. Why don’t you do something?” But in response there were only mumblings about not being able to find the right the man who said it, he was among crowds, and so on. We found him only after the assassination.”

The point is that there is no perfect scientific way of determining when the red line of incitement has been crossed. Only after something ghastly like an assassination has taken place, do we see how dangerously it was crossed. Until then it is a matter of judgement.

Newspapers and other media are intrinsically part of this scenario. A man shouting that Rabin the traitor deserves to die, may have said it among 100 people in a street, but when printed or televised, it reaches hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And the “delegitimisation” of the target is spread multifold.

Newspapers - print or online - see themselves as key defenders of free speech in a democracy. But where is their own red line?

To our embarrassment, our red line was crossed last week, when in our online version we carried a story with a cartoon image showing Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with a “Hitler” moustache, comparing him with Hitler for his stance against Israel.

The legal aspects of this can be picked apart for a long time in great detail. Incitement? Hate speech?

In our immediate context as a newspaper, it boils down to a lack of perspective, slipping through our normal editorial controls and allowing the debate on such important issues to sink to an unacceptably low level.

The leadership of the paper, ranging from the editor to the Board of Directors, quickly responded by immediately taking down the story and issuing an unconditional apology.

Talia Sasson says incitement cannot be totally stopped. The red line is not scientifically clear enough: “So what can we do? The answer is in the leaders. Leaders must condemn openly and aggressively where there is incitement against someone from their own political playground.” Our South African Constitution, likewise, recognises that freedom of speech must always come with responsibility.

We recognise that at the Jewish Report. We have at the highest level rejected the publishing of the “Hitler-Tutu” image, and publicly apologised to Archbishop Tutu himself. We hope he accepts it, and our desire for honest, robust debate within our pages, but always with dignity and respect.

3 Comments

  1. 3 Choni 18 Sep
    After reading this piece I feel a lot better. In the past everything that Ant. and Geoff have censored in my letters and comments has been "kindergarden" stuff compared to what was written about TuTu.
    Ant. I think your blog against me on Dec 1 2013 was unjustified in every sense of the word.
  2. 2 Ant Katz 18 Sep
    Hello Choni,

    1. The only time either Geoff (to the best of knowledge) or I have "censored" you was when you have posted things that are illegal - for the most part in both SA and Israel. We have to. If you are taken to the courts or the human rights authorities, we would be standing there alongside you.
     
    2. The only time either have refused to publish your comments or letters completely have been occasions where you have either been insulting or harassing contributors to the print newspaper or online - or "trolling" for which I was forced to warn you again yesterday.

    Behave like a mentch, don't break the law and we will continue to publish you every day. Break rules 1. or 2. - and we will certainly not.

    Shana Tovah
    Ant Katz
    [email protected]
  3. 1 Choni 19 Sep
    It is erev Yom Kippur, and I would like to request the forgiveness of anyone I might have offended in any of my past comments.

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