Dear Anton Harber, you’re nothing more than a Putin apologist

Dear Anton Harber,

YOU were once the editor of a weekly rag fundamentally opposed to the apartheid state. I read the Weekly Mail religiously every week, since the day it arrived on our newsstands, and followed often radical opinions, many white leftie columnists and also the writing of a sole, token black arts commentator.

In 1992 I visited your newsroom, and found to my dismay that unlike South Press, which was a veritable Rainbow Nation, the Weekly Mail was essentially an all-white newsroom, catering for academics and liberal-leftie types from Houghton.

On the strength of your paper’s success you became an adjunct professor at Wits.

In 2020 the EFF were forced to apologise for referring to you and Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki as ‘Stratcom agents’.

Absolutely nothing was said about the implications of testimony provided by one Paul Erasmus during the Timol inquest, which implicated the Weekly Mail in a disinformation campaign centering around a dirty tricks operation targeting the late Winnie Mandela, and also the struggle press.

This week, you issued an opinion piece published on News24 tackling the removal of Russia Today (RT) from Multichoice entitled: ‘Don’t silence voices to counter malicious disinformation’ in which you state:

“I dislike the Russia Today (RT) television channel because it is the propaganda tool of a dangerous and corrupt autocrat. It shows little respect for the truth, and is happy to propagate the most appalling lies. But every now and then, I would turn to it – briefly – to hear how the Russian government was seeing the world and to get an alternative – and sometimes challenging – view.”

The piece is behind a paywall, so I can’t read nor respond to the rest of your article, but it appears to place RT within the liberal ‘marketplace of ideas’, and thus merely one source of information, to which you occasionally turn to for fresh, often ‘challenging views’.

Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last month, and following the events of 2014, and the annexation of Crimea, RT has become anything but a source of ‘challenging views’ and rather, as you appear to admit, ‘a mere propaganda instrument’ punting the alternative world-view, of the Russian plutocrat and his oligarchs — especially when it comes to reasserting Russian territorial claims over Eastern Europe.

Unlike the USA where no restrictions on speech exist, South Africa has a particular history which has resulted in constitutional limitations on freedom of expression. Thus there exist in our constitution prohibitions against hate speech, incitement of violence as well as propaganda for war.

The Pro-Putin RT evangelism and calumny around war certainly falls into this category. It begs the question why you as a professor of journalism, feel the need to apologise for it, and raises the issue of whether or not you are even qualified to deliver such an opinion?

It was Michael Osborne, one of the legal representatives actively involved in the constitutional process who reminded me of the pitfalls of claiming free speech absolutism of the type currently espoused by Elon Musk on twitter.

“Would you shout fire in a crowded theatre?” he asked, beginning what is a well-trodden philosophical argument against absolute freedom of speech.

Surely you must understand, from your years spent, apparently combating apartheid indoctrination and brainwashing, (save for your paper’s vicious campaign against Winnie Mandela), there are consequences to speech, especially when it incites a nonchalance over violence and aggression that runs contrary to our constitutional value system?

Putin has been exposed as a liar and charlatan over his reasoning for the Ukraine invasion. The bombing of a Holocaust war memorial should put paid to the idea that this has anything to do with ‘denazification’. In truth this phrase is merely a propagandistic trope used in rallying the military, rather than the basis for a factual case, and despite its use as a casus belli.

The situation is clearly not one of moral equivalence in which two equal forces are somehow locked in a relationship of equanimity in a dispute in which civilians can simply choose which side they support, as if democracy, the rule of law and the liberal marketplace of ideas prevailed.

Putin has clamped down on press freedom inside Russia, passing laws which stifle commentary on the war. Leading to the arrest of at ‘least 2,776 people’ who have been arrested for protesting in the three days since the war began.’

This news from OVD-Info, ‘a Moscow-based organization that tracks arrests linked to anti-government activities across the country’, was not reported on its website, which was “inaccessible to Russians Saturday night” but on its Telegram channel.

In a separate statement on Saturday also reported by Canada’s The Star, “Roskomnadzor announced an investigation into the reporting of numerous media organizations over their accounts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the language used to describe the offensive.”

The outlets are accused of publishing “untrue information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the death of civilians in Ukraine as a result of the actions of the Russian army, as well as materials in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, invasion or a declaration of war,” the statement said.

If your piece proceeds to defend journalists within Russia affected by Putin’s crackdown, then I apologise beforehand. However, I have yet to see you defend independent journalism inside the country — you certainly have remained silent when journalists such as myself are gagged by the very outlet upon which your views and opinions have been published.

I therefore reject your argument as diabolical considering the current circumstances in which Ukrainian men, women and children are being targeted by Putin’s death squads.

Sincerely yours

David Robert Lewis

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