Category Archives: Politics

IHEU report on social media and discrimination against the non-religious

The IHEU is today releasing a report on discrimination against non-religious people, with examples drawn from all over the world. It makes for interesting reading, because in addition to all the cases that get widespread media attention, the problem of discrimination against the non-religious is perhaps a larger one than many people realise. The report offers many examples of such discrimination, sometimes in the expected places, but also in jurisdictions where you’d hope for freedom from persecution on grounds of non-belief.


Blasphemy prosecutions rise with social media

New report highlights persecution of atheists

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has produced the first report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious (pdf) has been published to mark Human Rights Day, Monday 10 December.

Freedom of Thought 2012 covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.

The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for “blasphemy” on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for “blasphemy” on Facebook or Twitter, including:

  • In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was jailed for two-and-a-half years for Facebook posts on atheism.
  • In Tunisia, two young atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for Facebook postings that were judged blasphemous.
  • In Turkey, pianist and atheist Fazil Say faces jail for “blasphemous” tweets.
  • In Greece, Phillipos Loizos created a Facebook page that poked fun at Greeks’ belief in miracles and is now charged with insulting religion.
  • In Egypt, 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud was sentenced to three years in jail, and Bishoy Kamel was imprisoned for six years, both for posting “blasphemous” cartoons on Facebook.
  • The founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists, Alber Saber, faces jail time (he will be sentenced on 12 December).

“When 21st century technology collides with medieval blasphemy laws, it seems to be atheists who are getting hurt, as more of them go to prison for sharing their personal beliefs via social media,” said Matt Cherry, the report’s editor. “Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, welcomed the research. In a foreword to the report Bielefeldt notes that there is often “little awareness” that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to “atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”


An advance copy of the Freedom of Thought 2012 report is available from: Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella group bringing together more than 100 Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries.

For more information contact:

Bob Churchill, +44 207 636 4797,

Or Matt Cherry, +1 518 632 1040,

Comment to the Press Freedom Commission on regulating the print media

The Press Freedom Commission “released a call for the SA public to voice its opinion about press freedom and the regulation of print media”. What follows is a submission made by the FSI Chairman (not a consensus statement by the FSI generally).


To whom it may concern,


This submission is intended to express support for the model of independent regulation, where a South African Press Council operates independently of both the media and government.

Regardless of the actual motives of proponents of measures such as the Media Appeals Tribunal, the Protection of State Information Bill, and the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, any constraints on free dissemination and access to information could be used for both noble and ignoble ends. It is for this reason that we’re wary of dictatorships, no matter how benign – if the framework for oppression exists, it would be naive to trust that such a framework will always be used to defend our best interests.

In a constitutional democracy, any presumptions made with regard to regulatory frameworks should favour freedom, with any limitations to the freedom of citizens and the press needing special justification. But there are nevertheless plausible circumstances in which some form of control over information could be merited. Even though one might be fully in support of adult access to pornography, restrictions on access by minors would be appropriate. Even though the citizenry should have access to as much information as possible about the workings of the state, it is nevertheless plausible that some information might present threats to national security, if widely broadcast. And while the media is rendered largely pointless if it can’t serve as a watchdog, there are legitimate questions to be asked about accountability and the reputational damage that might occur as a result of a media that thrives on scandal, and which is incentivised to publish news before their competitors do.

Neither the media itself, nor the state, should enjoy special authority with regard to press regulation. Not the media, for two primary reasons:
1. While some South African media attempt to uphold journalistic ethics, and to refrain from disseminating false, misleading or defamatory information, our media is not of equal quality in this regard. Yet, we cannot have different regulations for different media, in that these judgments are both impractical, and have no clear authority in terms of who would make them. The pressure to scoop your competitors can result in a deficit of prudence in this regard, especially for those media that thrive on scandal or controversy. In these cases, self-regulation will tend towards protecting the rights of those media to continue favouring sensation over more balanced coverage.
2. Second, the media is not populated by professionals to the extent that it once was. Pressures from Internet sources such as blogs, where information and analysis is frequently available without cost, have made operating a newspaper more difficult, and have cut profit margins to such an extent that the employment of a class of seasoned journalists, sub-editors and editors is now the exception rather than the rule. This raises an issue of competence, as increasingly junior (and often temporary) staff in newsrooms may lack the experience and wisdom to understand the long-range implications of what they report, even in cases where they don’t publish any actual untruths.

The case against the state having special authority with regard to regulation of the media is clear: A free society needs a fearless press to expose malfeasance or incompetence on the part of the state. The state has a vested interest in suppressing damaging information, or at least disincentivising its publication. We cannot trust that a state-controlled media will allow itself to be subjected to robust criticism, and their authority with regard to press regulation therefore needs to be restrained.

However, both the state and the media itself have legitimate interests in the regulation of print media, which need not be understood as an adversarial one. As any journalist would know, sound relationships with state officials can only contribute to the breadth and depth of coverage, and likewise state officials would know that the prospects of unfavourable coverage could be enhanced if the press media has no reason to regard them as honourable and fair participants in the production of press outputs.

A third party that also has legitimate interests in the regulation of print media is the public itself, many members of which desire fair and accurate reporting, and who might also abhor the sensationalistic tendencies of some of the press, particularly the tabloid media.

These three parties – the state, the press and the public – should therefore be participants in any regulatory process regarding the print media. Seeing as this regulation requires “passing judgement on complicated matters of journalistic reporting”, frequently involving ethical concerns, representation on any Press Council should also include those who have expertise in the area of ethics. Here, I would strongly caution against the frequent assumption – particularly in South Africa – that ethics and religion are easy bedfellows. In other words, it cannot be taken for granted that independent ethical opinion can be provided via the presence of religious leaders on a Press Council (even though they should of course be eligible). Ethics is after all a matter of academic enquiry, and our universities are well stocked with people who have this specialisation (as are various NGO’s).

The proposal here is therefore that a press council should contain representatives from all three sectors, including persons from outside the state and the press itself who have expertise in the field of ethics. The precise composition of such a council in terms of how many representatives it should contain, in what proportions, and questions of voting rights and veto’s is of course a complex matter, which can only be addressed briefly here. A summary of the composition envisaged here would be as follows:

A Council consisting of 10 members with equal voting rights, with
– 5 representatives from SANEF (or their delegated representatives)
– 3 members of the public
– 2 representatives of the state

Jacques Rousseau

Chairman: Free Society Institute

Stop Secrecy Week

Anyone in Cape Town and surrounding areas is encouraged to attend any of these events – but particularly the march on Saturday, in protest of the POI Bill.

Students Against Secrecy, a coalition of student organizations have put together a week of action to raise awareness about and activism against the Protection of Information Bill. Through a series of discussions, debates and campus displays we seek to provide a platform to engage UCT students in this vital question, which is at the very heart of our continent’s most vibrant democracy.


MONDAY 1PM – Business on Secrecy: Why Information is the Lifeblood of the Economy – Viola Manuel (Executive Director of the Cape Chamber of Commerce) – Leslie Social 2B

TUESDAY 1PM: The Secrecy Bill: An Introduction – Nkwame Cedile and Murray Hunter of Right2Know explain why the Protection of Information Bill still fails the freedom test. – Arts 100

TUESDAY 6PM – A Case Study: Uncovering and Reporting on the Arms Deal – Paul Hoffman (Director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa), Christi van der Westhueyzen (award-winning journalist author of White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party) and Hennie van Vuuren (head of the Institute for Security Studies) – Beatie 115

WEDNESDAY 1PM – Academics on Freedom – Dr. Max Price (UCT Vice-Chancellor) and Professor David Benatar (Head of the UCT Department of Philosophy) – Leslie Social 2B

THURSDAY 5.30PM – The Great Debate – Chair: Judge Dennis Davis. Panel: Martin Welz (Editor of Noseweek), Fatima Hassan (Co-Director of Ndifuna Ukwazi [Dare to Know]), Dario Milo (Senior Partner at Webber Wentzel) and Dennis Dlomo (Special Adviser to the Minister of State Security) – Jameson Hall. NB: Tickets must be collected from the SRC Office, Level 7, Steve Biko Building from Monday

SATURDAY 10AM – Right2Know March to Parliament from Kaizersgracht Street

Atheists and the politics of productive engagement

Prominent spokespersons for divisive views can make their arguments in more or less divisive ways. And while we shouldn’t confuse whatever offence is caused by antagonistic expressions of a viewpoint with the legitimacy of that viewpoint, we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that persuasion becomes more difficult when your audience is pissed off. Read more at Synapses.

Sam Harris, ‘new atheism’ and alleged Islamophobia

André Gide remarked that “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again”. So it is with the recent article by Mandy de Waal, who took Sam Harris (and the ‘new atheists’ in general) to task for ‘hate speech’, ‘bigotry’ and encouraging so-called Islamophobia. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in responding, as I find the content of de Waal’s piece disagreeable in almost every aspect. Read more at Synapses.

Breivik, terror and Islamophibia

Of course it is unfortunate, and prejudiced, for many commentators to have assumed that Breivik was a Muslim – and for those who assumed this, the bias is clear in how they concocted quite torturous narratives to explain why a Muslim would target kids at a Labour Party camp. It made little sense that he would (from those motives), yet the perceived equivalence between terrorism and Islam were too strong for some to resist. Read more at Synapses.

On Elevatorgate: Dawkins, Watson and the need for balance

The origins of what has now become a bitter war between various elements in the secular community lie partly in a failure to understand context, or to apply the principle of charity. Some posts on Elevatorgate make it appear that Watson accuses all men of being rapists, and others that Dawkins is a misogynist – but neither viewpoint seems justified. I’ve said a few words about this on Synapses.


Bill of Responsibilities

Note: this is an edited version of a column for The Daily Maverick

It has been a month since the department of education, LeadSA and the National Religious Leaders’ Forum launched their Bill of Responsibilities. Some criticisms of the bill were forthcoming from Ivo Vegter, Khadija Patel and myself (herehere and here). We had concerns regarding various aspects of the Bill, ranging from whether such a bill was necessary at all, to the appropriate role of the state in relation to such a bill.

One of the criticisms levelled at those who expressed opposition to the Bill was that “we need to do something”, with Yusuf Abramjee of LeadSA going so far as to deride “armchair critics” (Facebook link) who (according to his caricature, at least) do little but carp from the sidelines.

This characterisation is untrue, and unfair, as there are various ways of expressing concern regarding the state of South African society, and working towards its betterment. If parts of civil society are of the view that a particular measure – such as the Bill of Responsibilities – is counterproductive for what they imagine to be a healthy South African society, it does little good to attack their motives and character, rather than the substance of the critique.

This is not to say that a bill of responsibilities is necessarily counterproductive to goals such as fostering a healthy society – my concerns addressed one specific Bill, rather than the idea of such a bill in general. And while it is true that many of the salient details such a bill might include are already embedded in the spirit of the South African Constitution, the Bill of Rights is mainly a document of the role of the State in protecting the rights of citizens.

In addition to that – and particularly, now that LeadSA have offered such a document – it could be useful to remind ourselves of what responsibilities we as citizens have, if we are to secure and build on the sacrifices and efforts entailed in our being able to enjoy the privileges of living in a democratic and (mostly) free society.

I’ve therefore been giving some thought to what such a document should look like, bearing in mind the criticisms of the existing document made by myself and others. What you see below, then, is an alternate Bill of Responsibilities, intended for freedom-loving South Africans who also desire a healthy future for this country, but who think that this can be achieved without an excess of paternalism, and without intruding on the liberties secured in our Constitution.

Comments and suggestions for revision are welcome, although it should be born in mind that moral prescriptivism and other forms of paternalism run contrary to the spirit of this suggested bill, and will thus not only be difficult to accommodate, but will also be unlikely to meet with any sympathy. An underlying premise running through the document is that of a commitment to individual liberty, which means that if you are of the view that other values are more foundational, we’re unlikely to agree on much.

Also, while LeadSA’s bill was explicitly aimed at the youth of South Africa, the bill presented below is written for adults. Once the document is revised (and potential feedback incorporated), I hope to draft a simplified version that is more suited to South Africa’s youth.

A Bill of Responsibilities for the citizens of South Africa


I accept that the rights and freedoms enjoyed by South Africans will sometimes come under threat, and that they require constant and vigilant protection if we are to ensure their survival. Furthermore, I accept that if I care to protect these rights and freedoms, I should be conscious of the role I might play in reinforcing or undermining them.

I accept that the rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa lay a strong foundation for a country that is free, and in which all of its people are equal. I also accept that the Bill of Rights lays out unconditional rights for the all citizens of South Africa, and that the primary responsibility for the protection of those rights rests with the state.

I accept that while any legal responsibilities I have to my fellow citizens are codified in statutory law, I can nevertheless impact on those around me in positive and negative ways, regardless of the legal status of my actions.

On enlightened self-interest

1. To recognise that actions have consequences, and that other people are often as committed to their interests, and as convinced of their point(s) of view, as you are to yours.
2. To recognise that no citizen is by nature better than any other, and that any preferential treatment for one citizen, or a group of citizens, over others requires impartial justification.
3. To recognise that choices are made inside a legal framework, where what you do might result in repercussions if that action illegitimately defeats the interests of others.
4. To recognise that you live inside a social framework where you define yourself, and therefore people’s expectations of you, based on your words and actions. Our reputations, and the amount of trust others place in us, are informed by the information we have provided about ourselves.
5. To recognise that our behaviour is not guided and limited by the law alone. We make promises and develop relationships, both of which result in other people having legitimate expectations as to our behaviour.

On law, social interaction and public policy

6. To recognise that even where actions might not be illegal, they can nevertheless cause others to lose respect for you. Your failure to look after the interests or possessions of others could result in decreasing their desires to contribute to your needs or defend your interests.
7. To recognise that when you abuse any power you might hold over others, you assume that your interests are more important than theirs. People who are abused in this fashion are justified in being angry and resentful at this treatment, and could be expected to lose respect for you.
8. To recognise that when we find ourselves in positions which involve representing the interests of others, if we fail to take those interests into account, we are betraying their trust, and breaking a promise.
9. To hold Government to account for meeting the legitimate expectations of citizens, through measures such as voting, legal protest action, and persuading fellow citizens of their role in contributing to holding Government accountable.
10. To recognise that that your choices can impact on the welfare of others, and that altruism from others cannot be assumed. However, showing kindness and respect for others is usually rewarded by them treating you in the same way. If you don’t contribute to the welfare of your fellow citizens, you have no reasonable expectation that they contribute to yours.

On thought and speech

11. To recognise that your knowledge is certainly incomplete, and that a dogmatic insistence on the superiority of your viewpoint is rarely justified.
12. To acknowledge that because of this, you should try to seek out as much information as you can, and assess that information as impartially as you can, before thinking that you know the answer to a question.
13. And furthermore, that because we may have access to different information, and assess that information in different ways, that others have the right to criticise your point of view.
14. To recognise that if your primary commitment is to reaching justified points of view, you should welcome serious critical interrogation of your arguments even when it might be uncomfortable to have your views challenged.
15. To understand that fair criticism should be understood as relating to the arguments you have presented, rather than as an attack on your personal value as a citizen.
16. To recognise that if your primary commitments do not include reaching justified points of view, others have no responsibility to take your point of view seriously.

On patriotism and the future of South Africa

17. South Africa’s Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, charts a future in which all citizens are free to determine and express their own values, except where those values conflict with the limitations defined in the Constitution. Citizens should expect the state to ‘respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights’. SA Constitution, 7(2).
18. Supporting your country entails obeying all demands of law, and the instructions of those who are delegated to enforce it.
19. However, we should remember that laws can be unjust or unreasonable, and that citizens are entitled to question or challenge applicable laws through any legal means available to them.
20. In challenging the decisions or actions of the state, or any entity associated with the state, citizens should remember that any pressure exerted in an attempt to silence such challenges is a violation of their rights to freedom of thought and expression.

Leo Igwe arrested (again)

As reported on here, the harassment and intimidation of Leo Igwe continues. Despite the stated commitment of Awka Ibom State Governor Goodswill Akpabio to rooting out the exploitation of children for the Pentecostal witch industry, people like Leo – who are allies in that cause – are frequently arrested and subjected to other rights violations. Any who have contacts in the Nigerian government, or any other form of influence there, should be aware of this and exert what pressure they can to bring a halt to these attempts to limit Leo in his campaigning for basic human rights in Nigeria.

For some background on Leo’s troubles:

A response to Mngxitama

The Mail&Guardian of November 5 carried an opinion column by Andile Mngxitama which described Gareth Cliff as “the face of white supremacy“. Racism and other forms of prejudice are clear threats to a free society, and the FSI therefore notes with concern the racist tone and content of Mngxitama’s analysis. Pasted below is the original text of a submission to the Mail&Guardian in response to Mngxitama, published on November 12 under the title “White supremacy rant against Gareth Cliff sullies rational political debate“. Continue reading A response to Mngxitama