The Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), and SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition are deeply concerned at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)’s statement rejecting the Democratic Alliance’s TV advertisement reflecting the burning of the South African national flag. While the burning of the national flag is deeply offensive, and while many may be angered by the advertisement, it is precisely in moments where there is disagreement that freedom of expression needs to be protected.  The decision which effectively bans the advert is a clear unjustifiable limitation on freedom of expression.

It is imperative to recognize the right of individual South Africans to freely criticize and condemn the DA’s advert. However, as the public broadcaster, the SABC is entrusted with upholding principles of free speech and impartiality. This includes broadcasting advertisements from opposing political parties, regardless of any disagreement with the sentiments of actions expressed in the advert. The advert in question has come under fire by many and while the burning of the national flag is an egregious act and has caused anger amongst many, banning it is unjustifiable on the bases of media freedom and free speech. The decision to ban the advertisement, solely based on its content, sets a concerning precedent for censorship which we cannot afford, with our democratic elections only 19 days away.

We acknowledge the public broadcaster’s concerns regarding the desecration of national symbols and its role in promoting unity, especially during the current politically turbulent environment. However, no law exists in South Africa that makes the burning of the flag illegal or unconstitutional. While the burning of the flag may be considered violent and abhorrent by many, depicting the act itself is not illegal. In a democratic society, the exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives is fundamental; however, at odds these perspectives may be to our own. The censorship of content, even content that may be considered offensive or controversial, at such a national stage, undermines the essence of free expression upon which our society is based. Further, the Constitutional Court has recognized that the right to freedom of expression is not limited to statements that are moderate and inoffensive but also extends to those that offend, shock, or disturb.

In fostering a diverse and inclusive society, it is of utmost importance that we safeguard the principles of free speech whilst still upholding the dignity of symbols of national importance such as our flag. We acknowledge the SABC’s attempts to ensure that the flag is treated with dignity and respect. While the public broadcaster does have a duty to promote unity and nation-building whilst upholding our constitutionally mandated values, censorship is not and can never be the default solution.  Further, there are specific regulations for broadcasting political adverts during an election period, and when political advertisements are aired, there is a disclaimer indicating that political adverts do not reflect the views of the SABC but those of the advertiser thus insulating the public broadcaster from potential criticism.

We thus call on the SABC to urgently review its decision and to broadcast the advert.  Nothing prevents the SABC from facilitating discussion in its current affairs programs that seek to unpack in detail the issues around burning the flag – indeed much airtime has already been taken on SABC services to discuss this issue.

For more information:

Anton Harber CFE 083 303 9497

William Bird MMA 082 887 1370 or Thandi Smith MMA 073 470 7306

Samkelo Mokhine SOS 072 294 0671