TWEETS are clearly a short route to trouble. A couple of years ago Tim Noakes, the highly respected sports scientist and dietician, expressed an opinion via Twitter to a mother that a high-fat and vegetable, low-carbohydrate diet rather than cereals is preferable for infants. This is consistent with the Banting dietary regime now popular with many people. But, at the instigation of Claire Julsing Strydom of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), Noakes was charged by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) with unprofessional conduct on the grounds that he gave ‘unconventional advice’ and was consulting via the Internet. Commentators were quick to point out that unprofessional conduct was the charge levelled against Wouter Basson (Doctor Death), who headed the notorious, murderous apartheid-era chemical and biological warfare programme. Noakes did nothing more than express an opinion that, ironically enough, has its scientific roots in traditional societies of the pre-modern age.

After a blundering, interrupted process Noakes was recently exonerated and the reputation of the HPCSA was shredded. It conducted an effective inquisition, although it is supposed to be impartial, that was reportedly extremely stressful for Noakes even though he was supported by lawyers acting pro bono. This is the sort of case that human rights advocates dream about winning. But it also proved that in this modern age it is all too possible (even common) to be vilified and disciplined for doing one’s job to the very highest standard of principle and practice. In fact, that often seems the very reason for punitive action if a powerful agenda or vested interest is challenged. The pursuit and promotion of academic freedom, for instance, once regarded as commonplace and indeed a duty can now land the most worthy in deep trouble.

Disciplinary procedures are increasingly used to pursue vendettas and amount to a form of censorship. A number of commentators identified the possibility in the Noakes case of behind-the-scenes intervention by big food in the form of cereal companies that aggressively advertise, with the support of many dieticians, baby food using their products – in spite of evidence that the result is obese babies. There are a number of precedents (MacDonalds, Monsanto) in which the agriculture department of global capital used its immense financial and human resources against dissenters. At issue was the right to voice a reasoned opinion and pursue the truth.

The original motives of ADSA remain unclear, but it is well-known that cereal and sugar companies generously sponsor dietetics research. Noakes’ views are obviously inimical to the potential profit of multinational food companies and his is a very influential voice. All the evidence is present to suggest a powerful attempt to silence him. Given that more and more of what we read in the press is disguised advertorial, threats to the freedoms of information and expression can be traced to the insidious ways of big business.

South Africans, given past experience, tend to think of censorship in terms of government, but under a progressive, post-liberation constitution overt official censorship is now history. Instead, censorship comes from a greater variety of quarters: within universities, demonstrated by numerous painful examples, and from big business. But there is also troubling evidence that it is now embedded in grassroots politics and specifically targeting the press. For example, the Black First Land First (BFLF) movement has taken to harassing journalists who write critically about its patrons and business friends of the State President, the Guptas. This ranges from threats and jostling to demonstrations outside homes such as that of Peter Bruce. In this instance there was no police intervention even though the intimidation contravened the law on gatherings. A particular target is the amaBhungane investigative team.

Harassment of journalists has become routine and been described by the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) as cowardly, but publication in June of a ‘hit list’ of white journalists might more appropriately be called sinister. In other circumstances it would be considered an honour to be listed alongside Sam Sole, Adriaan Basson, Stephen Grootes, Max du Preeez, Alec Hogg, Barry Bateman and Katy Katopodis. And BFLF did not leave it there, but issued a complementary list of black journalists it labelled askaris[1]: Ferial Haffajee, Carima Brown and Eusebius McKaiser. The threatening implications are blatantly clear. Matters have reached the stage where BFLF leader Andile Mngxitama has been given a three-month suspended sentence for defying a court interdict.

Censorship in the name of political correctness, a growing international problem particularly in universities, continues to eat away at freedom of expression. If it is any consolation this is described in the appropriately ugly language of the fascist left: Helen Zille and her recently published autobiography were ‘deplatformed’ at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in a craven genuflection to those who objected to her right to express an opinion, however contentious, about colonialism. The growing numbers and influence of the ‘offended’ threaten to undermine the academic tradition of open contestation and persuasion.

The ultimate price of this increasing climate of fear and intimidation was recently paid by Suna Venter, a senior producer at Radio Sonder Grense, the external arm of the much-abused South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). She was one of the courageous SABC8 who defied unlawful interference in newsrooms, in particular over coverage of violent anti-government protest, orchestrated by since-dismissed Gupta apparatchik Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Sacked and then reinstated, some of the SABC8 (including Lukhanyo Calata and Thandeka Gqubule who bear impeccable struggle surnames) gave very powerful, courageous and compelling evidence to parliament last December about abuse within the public broadcaster.

For reasons that remain unexplained Venter was a particular target. She received numerous threatening text messages and suffered burglaries at her flat. The brake cables and tyres of her car were tampered with, she was shot in the face with pellets, and assaulted on three other occasions. Ultimately, she was abducted and tied to a tree at Melville koppies where the surrounding grass was set on fire. It is a saga that is almost beyond comprehension, the substance perhaps of a novel set in some banana dictatorship, but Venter soldiered on in the pursuit of freedom of expression. Her doctor advised her to walk away from the toxic atmosphere of the SABC. This was sound advice – at the age of just 32 Venter was found dead in her flat, a victim of broken heart syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy. The causes are not hard to imagine.

Venter is a true martyr to the continuing struggle for freedom of expression in South Africa. Those responsible for her death have inhabited the highest levels of the SABC and the fact that her experiences and demise have passed largely unremarked are a terrible indictment of the moral condition of South Africa. Her death is directly linked to the commanding heights of the State and that decrepit, amoral outfit the ANC; which are of course synonymous. Noakes, Zille and Venter: these cases are highly divergent, but all three represent a closing down of space for freedom of expression

Censorship was fundamental to the apartheid system. It was not simply a set of specific legal measures, but integral to state culture. Well over two decades on and operating in a constitutional democracy we are faced with the appalling truth that the current national culture of corruption, racketeering, misappropriation, venality and incompetence is becoming as dependent on censorship as was the apartheid regime. What light there is at the end of the tunnel is exceedingly dim.

[1] Since askaris were turned ANC cadres working for various organs of the apartheid state and thus prime targets for assassination in the name of liberation, the use of this word now is no small matter. It can be compared to the term cockroaches used before the Rwanda genocide of April 1994.