The minister and the pro-Tlhabi media: truth is not settled by a popularity contest
In his seminal 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, US philosopher and ethicist John Rawls proposes that societies should decide principles of justice from behind a “veil of ignorance”. This “veil” is essentially meant to blind those engaged in the task of deciding principles of justice to personal circumstances — such as their race, gender, class, creed, occupation, etcetera — to ensure that they are not tempted to tailor these principles to their own advantage.
Adapting this theoretical proposition to the South African social commentary context, the “veil” would ensure that no-one would tailor principles of justice and fairness to advantage themselves on the basis of their occupation as, say, a media personality or a cabinet minister.
Which is to say no-one would labour under the mistaken belief that the right to dignity, especially protection under the laws of defamation, can be denied to some on the basis of who they are and the position they occupy in society.
On September 25, media personality Redi Tlhabi took to social media and made the bold claim that Malusi Gigaba essentially abused the power of his office as minister of home affairs by introducing stringent immigration regulations in order to settle a personal grudge with his ex-wife. The regulations require both acknowledged parents of a minor child to consent to his/her departure from SA.
Tlhabi’s claim is, of course, patently false. Gigaba wasted no time demonstrating to Tlhabi that the regulations were, in fact, introduced by his predecessor, Naledi Pandor. He also pointed out that their roots are actually to be found in the Children’s Act and not some domestic squabble involving his then minor child, as she claimed.
Despite this, Tlhabi and her band of supporters, among whom are a number of seasoned journalists and reputable publications, persisted with their allegations and insults directed at Gigaba, making it quite clear that they are not, in any way, interested in facts, only their false claims.
In their misguided view, the media’s right to freedom of expression and the imperative to hold public representatives accountable effectively amount to a licence to publish false allegations about the said public representatives or, alternatively, to deny them the right to fair media coverage.
Of course, public representatives are expected to have thick skins and be able to tolerate the occasional hurtful remark or undue criticism.
This, however, is not to say they should tolerate being slandered at will. Neither is it to say they are not allowed to act to stop the spreading of falsehoods and defamatory allegations about them. To do so would limit the rights they enjoy by virtue of the constitutional proclamation that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”.
Media personalities must accept that they do not enjoy a monopoly over the truth. They must accept that they are not infallible. They must accept that, from time to time, they will be challenged and that, when they are shown to be wrong — as in Tlhabi’s case — they must have the integrity and the humility to acknowledge this and apologise.
Much as it would be wrong for Gigaba to insist on his every assertion being assumed to be the gospel truth on the basis of the position he has been entrusted with, it cannot be correct that Tlhabi can insist on being adjudged to be right, regardless of the facts, just because she happens to be popular with a particular section of society — no matter how powerful that section might be.
The truth cannot be determined via a popularity contest. Neither can it be altered by our feelings about either of the parties.
Gigaba already happens to be one of the most unfairly vilified politicians in SA. He has lived with the kind of defamatory and abusive reporting Tlhabi is subjecting him to since his appointment as a member of the country’s executive at the age of 33, in 2004.
Over the years, he has been assigned many different labels, from “Thabo Mbeki lapdog” to “enabler of state capture”. Forever being challenged to defend himself against “widely held negative perceptions” of him without once being confronted with a clear set of established facts — or even specific allegations, at the very least — underpins these ever-evolving labels.
If only media personalities such as Tlhabi would consider the virtues of Rawls’s theoretical proposition of the “veil of ignorance”.
If they could develop and apply principles of justice and fairness in a manner that is not biased in favour of their narrow personal interests and tastes, our public discourse would be more constructive and inclusive.
And public representatives would not need to go to court to uphold their right not to be slandered.