Free speech, not hate speech

9 February 2006

As the controversy over the Muslim cartoons continue to stoke violence and debate across the world, the South African government has come out strongly in support of freedom of speech, while acknowledging the hurt caused to Muslims and warning against hate speech.

In a statement issued after Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, the government said it “acknowledges the hurt” the cartoon portrayal of Prophet Mohammed had caused Muslims “in our country and across the globe”.

“We appreciate the fact that, on the whole, South Africans affected by this development have sought to find one another in a spirit of mutual respect,” said government spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe.

“South Africa upholds the principle of freedom of speech.

“However, we do appreciate that our Constitution enjoins us, in exercising this right, to respect the sensitivities of individuals and communities, and to eschew actions that may be interpreted as hate speech.”

Referring to the high court order granted over the weekend to bar South African newspapers from reprinting the cartoons, Netshitenzhe said that the government preferred to see editorial decisions about what to publish being made by the media alone. However, the Cabinet “is of the view that all of us should respect decisions of our courts and, where necessary, use the mechanisms of recourse available in our judicial system”.

He emphasised the government’s stand that the media’s right to freedom of speech should be finely balanced with other rights protected in South Africa’s Constitution, adding that the government was encouraged by talks between the Independent Newspapers group and Muslim leaders.

South African Muslims are set to join the worldwide campaign against the cartoons this week, Business Day reports. Thousands are expected to heed a call by the Muslim Judicial Council and march on the Danish consulate in Cape Town today.

Netshitenzhe called for calm during the protests and said the government would ensure that the protests did not lead to violence. “There has been interaction with the Danish embassy and we will assist with beefing up security in the light of the current developments,” he said.

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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