Blasphemy making a comeback?

SOUTH AFRICA like most Western countries has a shameful¬†history of blasphemy legislation associated with Judeo-Christian strictures on ‘invoking the lord’s name in vain’, prohibitions on satirising of the crucifixion and the¬†retelling of¬†biblical stories¬†in any manner not¬†condoned by the Church. Blasphemy laws came to an end when the country adopted a¬†secular,¬†“We the People”, constitution.

For at least two decades following the signing into law of the constitution by Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1996, South African institutions (bar one or two exceptions) have been reluctant to push anything resembling a theological point of view, and there are a number of key legal precedents in this regard.

The emergence of a powerful (and often violent), religious lobby group on the nation’s campuses has however, seen secularists and those accused of blasphemy on the backfoot. In a¬†statement released to the press, over the weekend, the University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, Max Price¬†revoked an invitation issued by the¬†Academic Freedom Committee to Flemming Rose last year. Rose apparently had been set to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture on Academic Freedom.

Rose is the cultural editor of the Danish magazine,¬†Jyllands Posten. In 2005, he solicited and published a series of cartoons apparently “depicting the Prophet Mohammed”. The publication of the cartoons “generated extensive debate and controversy globally, regarding freedom of speech, blasphemy, and Islamophobia”, and was “also accompanied by public protests, riots and even loss of life. Most print media around the world refused to re-publish them.”

It is not the purpose of this piece to examine the Rose controversy, other than to state the case below, against blasphemy.

Previously under apartheid, a despotic regime banned sex across the colour line, placed stars on women’s nipples and forced anti-apartheid activists into hiding,¬†theocrats were in power and religion was used to justify a war on the border. Clerics, theologians and especially the¬†dominees¬†of the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK),¬†preached what was then known as the¬†‘heresy of apartheid’ involving racism of a special type, the battle of blood river and the ideology of¬†separate but equal.

Thus in¬†1988 the Botha government, at the behest of the NGK, banned ‘The last temptation of Christ‘, a film directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film depicts Jesus as a mere mortal as opposed to the divine rendition of him found in the Bible.

It is worth mentioning a similar incident in the United Kingdom,¬†namely Whitehouse v Lemon, involving a poem by James Kirkup published by Gay News, ¬†entitled:¬†The Love that Dare’s to Speak its Name¬†and for which the publishers received jail sentences.”The indictment described the offending publication as “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion”.

In 1989¬†the South African censorship authorities banned Kalahari Surfer’s album¬†Bigger Than Jesus,¬†due to concerns about the title and a song “Gutted With The Glory”‘s use of the Lord’s Prayer, which they deemed “abhorrent and hurtful”.

Later after the collapse of apartheid,  and under a democratic government, the music was unbanned and Scorsese film, along with all its homo-erotic and profane overtones, was permitted to be broadcast in 2008.

Likewise, in 1988 Salman Rushdie’s novel¬†The Satanic Verses¬†was banned by an apartheid government, but later in 2002 under the government of Thabo Mbeki, the novel was unbanned. The¬†Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa had earlier heard a complaint¬†(in the same year) against MNET¬†after the¬†screening of the film Reservoir Dogs. “The Complainant, who is the moderator of the South Hills Evangelical Church, lodged a complaint with [the Commission]. The complaint was, in the main, directed at the taking in vain of the Lord‚Äôs Name by the characters in this film in the form of ‚ÄúJesus Christ‚ÄĚ and other forms.”

The complaint was not upheld.

Which leads us to the present moment in which SABC censors are once again censoring news stories in a manner reminiscent of the apartheid state, and where ICASA has issued a firm directive against SABC policy. Can one expect to see similar directives issued perhaps by the Minister of Education, countermanding the latest actions by the Vice-Chancellor of UCT? It all depends upon whose definition of secularism one uses, whether the previous claims by the apartheid regime hold any stock, and whether or not our current democratic government is serious about the rights vested in our Constitution.

SEE: How Free is UCT?

No, UCT was wrong by Jeff Rudin

Independent Media hypocrisy exposed

CAPE TOWN: The Independent Group has refused a request for information relating to its liability as a corporate entity and ongoing participation as a media company in civil litigation. The request filed on behalf of the Alternative Media Forum (AMF) — an ad hoc grouping of media activists and civil society organisations — was submitted to Independent’s Chief Executive Officer, Tony Howard, but access to the information was refused.

In a legal brief, Independent News & Media (INM) has supplied a number of reasons why it believes it should not grant access to the information requested and why it believes the information is protected from public disclosure. None of the reasons supplied address the key issues raised by the AMF relating to the group’s responsibility as a media organisation to keep the public informed.

According to INM’s lawyers, “the right to be informed is not a right”, and consequently one may draw the conclusion that the group is neither serious about press freedom, nor bound by the Press Code of Professional Practice as it relates to corporate affairs. According to a copy of the Press Code of Professional Practice supplied by the Press Ombudsman, to which Independent is a signatory, “the basic principle to be upheld is that the freedom of the press is indivisible from and subject to the same rights and duties as that of the individual and rests on the public¬Ęs fundamental right to be informed and freely to receive and to disseminate opinions.”

The AMF intends appealing against INMs decision, before bringing an action before a court of law, that could force full public disclosure. The response by the Independent Group, calls into question the sincerity of its own executives in furthering the interests of the media as a whole. The contradiction between the way the group views its business and the demand for accountability and press freedom should also be noted. The interests of media bosses, like so many claims of this nature, are being seen as paramount to the interests of a free press, in a plutocracy that sees small publishers as a threat to their own survival. Furthermore, INM, via its various corporate holdings, continue to operate as if it has sole proprietorship over the daily press in South Africa. The group has now flouted both common sense and decency, by not disclosing this information, and is evidently hiding behind a veil of corporate secrecy.

In effect, the refusal to give details of civil litigation to which it has has been a party, simply because INM is a “private company”, renders litigation in lower courts impotent and without any remedial value. The group recently refused to supply details of a court case which it lost in 2003, while using the information to smear the convener of the Alternative Media Forum, David Robert Lewis.

The Alternative Media Forum is now claiming in papers that will be filed for review, that although INM is a private body that enjoys certain commercial rights, as a press group these rights have been superceded by the public’s “right to know”, furthermore, media interests gained via the constitutional guarantees on free speech, transparency, openness and access to information should be open to public scrutiny. It is the function of a public role which has added emphasis to these rights, and the public has a right to be informed of matters relating to freedom of the press.

There will be a meeting to discuss this response and other events surrounding press freedom and the media at a future date and venue to be announced.


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