EFF President Julius Malema addresses the protesters outside the commission of inquiry into state capture in Parktown. Picture: FEDDY MAVUNDA
EFF President Julius Malema addresses the protesters outside the commission of inquiry into state capture in Parktown. Picture: FEDDY MAVUNDA

Did EFF leader Julius Malema make himself guilty of hate speech when he said he “did not have to kill” journalists whom he believed were dishonest? And should he and his party be held responsible for their supporters’ purported acts of intimidation against the media?

These questions go to the heart of an application brought before the Equality Court on Monday, where five journalists and the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) applied for an interdict against Malema and the EFF, who they accuse of creating a “toxic” working environment for reporters.

Malema and EFF lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi argued that the firebrand’s comments did not constitute hate speech in any way, but Sanef and the journalists’ lawyer, Daniel Berger, SC, differed.

Sanef and the journalists want an apology and for the court to have Malema’s statements declared hate speech. The applicants are seeking an interdict preventing the publication of the personal information of these five journalists, as well as an interdict preventing Malema from endorsing the intimidation, harassment and threatening of journalists.

The journalists are Ranjeni Munusamy, Adriaan Basson, Pauli van Wyk, Max du Preez and Barry Bateman.

The basis for their complaint stemmed from a speech Malema made outside the state capture commission on November 20, at the time when public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan was testifying before deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo. 

Malema referred to “crooks who are calling themselves journalists” who did not ask Gordhan the questions that he, Malema, wanted to hear. He likened the media to the apartheid government’s “Stratcom” disinformation campaign, and called Tiso Blackstar “hypocrites”. He named media companies Tiso Blackstar Group, Daily Maverick and its investigative unit Scorpio, and e.tv.

Malema told his supporters: “Where we meet the enemy, we must crush the enemy. On Facebook, Twitter, social media, be there, guard the revolution. When the enemy raises its ugly head, don’t hit the head, cut off the head.”

He urged his supporters to “attack” and to “occupy every house, every space in society”, including social media platforms.

The EFF leader said he often talked to journalists and disagreed with their views.

“I don’t have to declare them [journalists] enemies. I don’t have to kill them. I want them to live long to see the success of the EFF. All we are asking from the media: be honest,” Malema added.

Berger told the court on Monday that the complainants had set out in detail how they had been affected by the actions of the EFF and Malema.

He said Malema, the EFF and its followers had made threatening statements and tweets, which targeted the complainants because of their reporting.

“This has created an environment which is toxic and hostile towards journalists. The respondents (EFF and Malema) have done nothing, and at times endorsed what their followers have said,” Berger said.

But Ngcukaitobi said no-one in their right mind would construe Malema’s speech as intimidation, threatening or creating hostility. When read as a whole, the dominant message was that Malema was asking the media for honesty. 

“The rest of it is, of course, political rhetoric.”

However, Berger said only a court order would stop the harassment of these journalists.

He dismissed the EFF and Malema’s defence that they should not be liable for the conduct of people who identified themselves as EFF supporters. 

“The EFF and Mr Malema are duty bound to take steps to ensure that people who act in their name are left in no doubt that they are not acting in the name of the EFF or Mr Malema,” Berger said.

It was clear from the response by Malema and the EFF in the court papers that they believed the complainants were to blame for the attacks on them.

“We submit unless the interdict sought is granted, nothing will change because Mr Malema and the EFF believe these journalists are not entitled to any protection, that they themselves have descended into the political arena and are fair game,” Berger said.

The matter continues on Tuesday.