By Iqbal Jassat
In a remarkable testament to the protection of free speech in South Africa, especially in relation to Palestine and the settler-colonial regime of Israel, which usually is marred by intimidatory allegations of antisemitism by pressure groups on behalf of the colonial entity, the Press Council of SA (PCSA) upheld this vital right.
It did so following a protracted battle in which the perpetrator, the SA Jewish Report, found to be in violation of the press code, opted to defy the rulings against it, but finally faced the proverbial ax.
In a dramatic turn of events that promises to have a liberatory impact on civil society’s ability to overcome impediments to freely criticize Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and campaign against it, the SA Jewish Report has been expelled from the Press Council of SA (PCSA) with immediate effect.
PCSA executive director Latiefa Mobara, in a statement issued on Friday, said the publication refused to obey rulings by the acting press ombud and PCSA chair of appeals Judge Bernard Ngoepe.
It is clear that contempt and defiance reached a point where the PCSA had no choice but to expel the Jewish Report, it being the first time such an action has been taken against a publication in the last two decades.
The statement also quotes Press Council chair Judge Phillip Levinsohn. He said the decision was taken after lengthy correspondence and after the SA Jewish Report had refused to obey the rulings against it.
“The SA Jewish Report appealed the ruling by acting ombud Johan Retief in the complaint, SA BDS Coalition and GIWUSA v SA Jewish Report, but their application for leave to appeal was dismissed by judge Ngoepe.”
The valiant battle in defense of free speech and against false misleading charges of antisemitism was led by unionist and media activist Hassen Lorgat.
He lodged the complaint on behalf of the SA Boycott Divestment and Sanction Coalition (SABDS) and the General Industrial Workers Union of SA (Giwusa), after a scathing report by the publication accused them of antisemitism.
The report came in the wake of the Clover dairy labor dispute during which Giwusa and SABDS Coalition published a cartoon depicting greed by capitalist bosses.
At the center of the complaint which today resulted in humiliation and embarrassment for the Jewish Report, is the offensive article published in October 2020, with a brazen and indeed provocative headline: Antisemitic Clover cartoon is BDS’s sour ‘last gasp’.
Ironically, instead of the “last gasp”, Palestinian solidarity movements are having the last laugh.
Not only has their complaint been rewarded with a decisive outcome in defense of freedom of speech and expression, but they are also able to encourage media platforms to overcome the false sense of fear of being smeared as anti-Semites.
South African media coverage of the brutality of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the ongoing incremental genocidal policies of its right-wing apartheid regime, has in general been lukewarm.
The most recent cold-blooded assassination of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is a case in point. The lack of incisive reports and the utter absence of editorials condemning the targeted murder of a media icon, reveals a lackluster approach towards Israel.
Notwithstanding the fact that international human rights organizations have concluded that Israel is an apartheid state deserving censure, boycott and isolation, most media platforms have yet to devote space and time to express support. Such solidarity is after all expected to be informed by the media’s own commitment to human rights.
One would expect of South African journalists and diverse media platforms including the public broadcaster, to be extremely sensitive to abuse and assault of fellow media practitioners in Occupied Palestine. That targeted executions by Israel have cost the lives of more than 20 journalists in the past decade, ought to be of grave concern.
Now that the Press Council has decisively acted to punish the Jewish Report for falsely charging legitimate critique of Israel as anti-Semitism, it has by extension opened media space to engage in robust and fearless debate on the apartheid regime’s litany of crimes.
The shackles of self-censorship for fear of being smeared as anti-Semites have been removed.
Though lobbyists for apartheid practices in Israel are expected to continue stifling critics by invoking the discredited canard of antisemitism, the test of it will reside in the court of public opinion as well as the media’s resolve to buck the trend.