Rapport editor Tim du Plessis was wrong to fire the columnist who drew reader anger by defending Satanism, writes Max du Preez in The Star.

Max du Preez writes in The Star:

Free speech is not a media issue only, but journalists should be in the front line of guarding this freedom – if only because they cannot do their job properly without it. If they themselves violate this freedom, citizens should protest.

There is a culture in South Africa and elsewhere that media institutions, especially newspapers, should not attack or even criticise each other. I have never believed in this dictum and have made myself very unpopular within my profession when I spoke out against colleagues or newspapers I disagreed with. I feel compelled to do it again now.

The Sunday newspaper Rapport recently recruited a columnist from another publication where he became known as being so controversial that he generated up to 80 readers' responses per column.

In one piece this columnist wrote about religious tolerance and declared that even those who worship Satan should be tolerated. We know the editor of Rapport read his column before it went into the paper because he referred to it in his personal piece in the paper, warning that it was controversial but advising that it was part of the democratic practice to expose readers to differing opinions.

Some Christians then started an SMS campaign for a boycott of the paper if the columnist wasn't fired. Shortly afterwards the editor buckled under the pressure and dismissed the columnist. He explained that the campaign for the man's dismissal also included threats against some of the newspaper's distributors and sellers, but he wasn't more specific than that.

The editor declared that the issue had moved from being a freedom of speech issue to a threat against the paper's economic interests. I still cannot make sense of that. Is free speech only something to uphold when it doesn't threaten your revenue? Is it a case of you can threaten someone else's material well-being by publishing something negative about him/her, but if a newspaper's material well-being is threatened a different set of rules apply?

If it is indeed true that there were physical threats of violence, and if these threats were of such a nature and came from a source that it really had to be taken seriously (which I really doubt), it would certainly be a matter for a criminal investigation. I know of no such investigation.

I believe the editor of Rapport's first error was to put himself up as the guardian of his employer's financial interests. It is true that an editor should keep his newspaper's circulation figures and thus financial well-being in mind in the running of the paper so as to assure its survival and the availability of resources for good journalism. But there should be a firm division between spheres, like the divisions between church and state or executive and judiciary.
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The editor is the leader of a publication fighting for the principles of free speech and for the interests of the journalists and the readers, while the proprietor should guard the financial interests.

I believe if the editor of Rapport was utterly convinced that his newspaper's financial future was in acute danger, he should have put that information before the newspaper's owner and asked the owner to make a decision.

The editor should then have offered his own resignation as the individual responsible for the publication of the piece. Firing someone from the paper because some radical elements didn't like what he wrote should never be the route followed.

Giving in to the irrational threats of a small group of Christian fundamentalists was a severe blow for media freedom. The word is out now that any fringe group can determine the course of newspapers' editorial content, you only have to whip up some emotions with an SMS and e-mail campaign and make a few threatening calls to a news agent or corner café. I hope all Christians are ashamed of what was done in their name.

The Mbeki government and the leaders of the ruling ANC have been making many hostile sounds towards media freedom lately – like threats to withdraw state advertising from newspapers critical to government and like a proposal for a tribunal to regulate the media.

Newspaper editors and their highly respected national body, the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef), have come down hard on government and repeatedly warned against any step that might undermine free speech.

But now one of their own has buckled under pressure and chucked free speech out the window because of a perceived threat to its economic interests. The other editors and Sanef are suddenly very quiet. How can they expect to be taken seriously by the government and the public the next time they warn against threats against their freedom?

* This column appeared in The Star on 22 November 2007.