File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA).

Former DA leader and Western Cape premier Helen Zille has entered the fray in the court case involving the South African Editors Forum (Sanef) and EFF.

Sanef and five senior journalists have approached the Equality Court in an attempt to interdict the EFF from intimidating, harassing and assaulting journalists.

Writing in a column published by News24, Zille, who is a senior policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, said freedom of speech was often (correctly) cited as the most fundamental right in a democracy.

"Few other freedoms can survive if people are prevented from writing and saying what they believe, even when their utterances are obnoxious or wrong. Of course, as with all other rights, there are limits."

She also said the right to free speech did not extend to defamation or hate speech.

"But hurtful, even hateful speech is not necessarily 'hate speech' as defined in our Constitution," she said.

The former DA leader also said she has been interested to read that Sanef and five prominent journalists were taking the  EFF to the Equality Court for making "threatening and hateful" statements about them.

She also said the media reports on the court case have been confusing, to say the least.

"The first problem is that those I have read, have not explained the legal basis for Sanef's challenge. Most of them read as if Sanef is trying to prevent people from being nasty to journalists," Zille said.

"At face value, this seems ludicrous, not to mention ironic, given the extent of the gratuitous nastiness that often passes for journalism these days."

Zille added that the right to speak your mind is considered fundamental to a person's dignity in a democracy.

"The fact that another person may feel hurt or insulted is considered, in law, a lesser violation of dignity."

She insisted that freedom of speech was the foundational value on which media freedom rested.

"Are journalists claiming the right to exercise their freedoms (including to be hateful and hurtful, which they regularly are) while preventing others from doing so?

"Given that Sanef and almost all the journalists who have brought the case are active commentating participants in day-to-day politics, rather than mere neutral observers, do they expect to be immune from blow-back?," she asked.

Zille, however, said she supported using the full force of the law against people who transgressed the prohibitions on genuine "hate speech" and defamation.

She also said if Sanef succeeded in its court case, it would massively extend the constitutional definition of hate speech and be a serious set-back for freedom of expression.

"But if the Sanef case succeeds, it will be a sad day, because the media will have been complicit in curtailing a foundational freedom."

Political Bureau