The underwriting Executive Committee members of the South African Communications Association (Sacomm) records in this statement support for academic freedom and freedom of expression as a constitutional right in the wake of the controversy surrounding a government proposal to investigate Professor Glenda Gray for expressing a different view.
President of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Council (MAC), Gray expressed reservations about the effectivity of the current lockdown. Gray was appointed by the Minister of Health to advise on matters relating to the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In May 2020, Gray participated in media interviews and together with other eminent scientists expressed criticism on the implementation of some aspects of the lockdown regulations announced by government. The Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkize responded to each of Gray’s criticisms in a step by step, point by point, refutation.
It is correct and within his right to defend the government’s decisions and stances, as it is within all scientists rights to differ in approaches, methods, and of course ideological stances. It is what is taking place globally. This transparency of debate is important for our democracy; indeed it is what makes our democracy a vibrant space.
However, Acting Director General of the Department of Health, Dr Anban Pillay went much further. He has asked for an investigation into the conduct of its president, Gray, because she held different views – stating that the SAMRC – is a government entity.
Actually the SAMRC is meant to be an independent statutory body. According to Assaf: “Dr Pillay’s actions represent a violation of the right to academic freedom that includes the right to freedom of academic research (s.16 (d) of the Constitution).”
Assaf: “we believe that freedom of scientific enquiry is fundamental to the health of our constitutional democracy. Academics and researchers need the space to undertake independent research in an environment that is free from fear, intimidation and political interference. To threaten researchers and to muzzle their voice would have a chilling effect on creativity, innovation and experimentation.
“We believe that the spirit of science was beautifully captured in President Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on 24 May 2020 when he said that “We appreciate the diverse and sometimes challenging views of the scientists and health professionals in our country, which stimulate public debate and enrich our response.”
It is this spirit that should inform the public response to science and scientists as they do their vital work.
We support this view of the president as well as that of Assaf. We point out that any idea to “investigate” anyone for having different views smacks of Stalinism, authoritarianism, and is in distinct contradiction with our constitutional democracy. Such threats must be withdrawn with urgency.
Sacomm Executive Committee:
President – Prof Elnerine (WJ) Greeff
Deputy President – Prof Tanja Bosch
Interest group Convenors / Co-convenors:
Communications Advocacy and Activism – Prof Glenda Daniels
Corporate Communication – Prof Mehita Iqani
Communication Studies – Dr Sandra Pitcher
Emerging Scholars Network: Ms Sylvia Skhosana and Mr Collen Chambwera