Thought Leader’s thought police: M&G “poep”-scared of Zuma?

On Wednesday evening I posted a piece on my Thought Leader blog I titled “The poephol shall govern!” (a playful pun on an expression from the Freedom Charter) about Zuma’s inevitable accession to the presidency.

The first paragraph went as follows:
Let’s face it. Short of an Mbeki groupie’s assassination attempt on Zuma (which is unlikely to happen considering the R1 million of taxpayer’s money spent each month protecting the man), come April, the great man will be state president.
I discovered on Thursday that without informing me, the Mail & Guardian Online (who run Thought Leader) had changed the the title to the rather inane “Zuma shall govern …”. In addition to this, the first paragraph had been censored so that it now simply reads:
Let’s face it, come April, the great man will be state president.
Not quite what I meant, really.
So I raised this issue with the dear people at the M&G Online who told me that I had flouted editorial guidelines. I was told:
Insinuating that Mbeki-ites would want to assassinate Zuma, or that the only way he could be prevented from becoming president is by assassinating him, is irresponsible and inciteful.
Furthermore I was informed that:
You also claimed the ANC  “quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system and the very concept of the rule of law and legal processes”. This is a widespread perception, but hasn’t been proven, thus making such a statement libelous.
So this is what I responded with:
Firstly the statement was tongue-in-cheek — far from inciting anyone it was instead poking fun at the fervent dislike of Zuma that Mbeki supporters have. But tongue-in-cheek notwithstanding, I fail to see how pointing to the inevitability of a Zuma presidency (with an assassination being the only thing stopping that) is irresponsible or inciteful — it merely acknowledges that Zuma’s overwhelming support (both amongst the electorate and within a powerful camp in the ANC) will propel him to the presidency regardless of the legal issues he faces — something that I explore and justify in the rest of the post.
By claiming that only an assasination will prevent him from becoming president I am not at all inciting or encouraging people to kill him. Far from it. I’m simply saying that I believe with such certainty that he will become president — and that the only way forseeable way that this would not occur would be if someone assasinated him (which I further point out is extremely unlikely to occur — for obvious reasons).
I  then dealt with the accusation of libel:
I believe the second piece you mention to have been misinterpreted.
The entire paragraph reads:
But even if he has been a victim of Mbeki’s Machiavellian machinations that does not justify absolution. Advocating such a sinister agenda illustrates how absolutely desperate certain elements of the ANC are to ensure that their man gets to the top. So much personal interest is at stake that they will, it seems, quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system and the very concept of the rule of law and legal processes, which form key components of our constitutional democracy, to ensure that Zuma moves into the Tuynhuys.
Firstly as you will see above, I reference “certain elements of the ANC” and not the ANC as a whole. (Since I do not name who these elements are — obviously Zuma’s high-ranking supporters — it’s unlikely that the M&G or myself will face libel action from these “elements”).

But furthermore this can’t be libellous because I say “they will, it seems ” — not “they are” — implying that it would appear that the certain elements (i.e. Zuma supporters) “will” (i.e. are prepared to — the use of the future tense means that they haven’t necessarily done so yet) “quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system etc….” — the belief that they are prepared to do so being based on on my analysis and interpretation of the legal obstructionism (discussed in great detail elsewhere in the post) being used to prevent Zuma going to trial.

To read the paragraph as a whole it is clear that I am stating that by promoting Zuma’s absolution, those within the ANC who adovocate such an agenda are prepared to “quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system etc….” — and this is a legitimate and not libellous sentiment because it is based on the hypothesis that by wanting to prevent Zuma from standing trial, those “certain elements” are setting a precedent of Zuma being above the law  and thus are riding roughshod over the judicial system which implements the law — simply by being demanding that Zuma be an exception to it and its potential consequences.

It seems that gone are the days when the M&G relished its role as cheeky, feisty fighter for free-speech. Who would have thought that they were this frightened of Jacob Zuma et al?

As I explained to the M&G Online, I take the words I write and the meaning they convey very seriously. While I understand defamatory content is not acceptable on Thought Leader I think it is vital to preserve the spirit of free speech and vibrant, possibly controversial opinion so long as it explained and justified — which I believe my blog post (or at least the one I submitted) attempted to do. To censor a valid contribution runs the risk of inducing self-censorship, which can only damage robust debate in this country.

  • Read the uncensored version of The poephol shall govern! here.
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Thought Leader’s thought police: M&G “poep”-scared of Zuma?

  1. Given the fact that political assassinations happen in SA, I don’t think it is a good idea to joke about that – it should really disappear from how we think about politics – even in jokes.
    Also, poephol is not a nice word to use in a newspaper, and the wordplay with ‘people’ is not funny enough to justify breaking that taboo.
    You’ve picked your words badly, and you should learn from with the way the M&G editor changed those two things. This cannot be called censorship – it is only editing.
    If the bit about riding “roughshod over the judicial system” was censored, I’d side with you, but it wasn’t.
    There is nothing in what happened that allows me to think the M&G is scared of Zuma’s ANC.

  2. Ryan

    It’s completely outrageous and utterly unjustifiable. And alleman, you can call censorship “editing” if you like (one of the great euphemisms?), but that, my friend, is the justification of the acolyte. Shameful.

  3. I think it’s a far more marginal call than Ryan suggests.

    Alex, to be fair, your proposed first paragraph was in pretty poor taste, and the ‘playful pun’ amounts to calling Zuma a poephol. As much as we might like to do that, it’s close to if not actually libel.

    We could look more favourably on your proposed first paragraph if it was truly humourous, but it’s only slightly funny. Political assassinations are dangerous territory for making jokes, and you did precisely suggest that only an assassination could prevent Zuma being president, which is itself a shocker. You could have done much better… and in your most recent Thought Leader contributions, you definitely have.

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