From stony silence to anger – the response to online critical voices

I have been asked on numerous occasions why we make our #HandsOffOurWildlife campaign so public. Why don’t we communicate with these people by email? Obviously, part of the reason for taking the campaign public is to raise awareness on the various captive wildlife and welfare issues. However, also because we have tried and tested almost all means of communication with varying degrees of success. Unless organisations feel the pressure on public platforms, it’s all too easy to ignore tricky questions.

Remember the Thanda Tau exposure earlier in the year, when I asked some poignant, but vital questions on the whereabouts of their lion cubs that had outgrown their petting enclosure? Before taking my questions to this public platform, I tried to communicate with their management by email on many occasions, but never even received an acknowledgement of receipt. After some serious pressure on social media, Thanda Tau at least made a public statement, even though it was bland and non-committal and still didn’t answer any of my questions.

They were pushed further on social media until they finally stated, if we wanted answers we should DM them on Facebook. You already guessed, I did and again a wall of silence, but this time they also blocked me (and other NGOs fighting for animal rights and welfare issues) on all their social media platforms.

So what is the moral of this story? Only a few of years ago, when social media took off as a serious online force, companies took customer complaints made through social media seriously, responded timely and suitably, as ignoring complaints was considered a huge mistake.

These days, when environmental and conservation lobby groups, like our #HandsOffOurWildlife campaign, use online platforms as a means of fighting our cause, we notice more and more that the organisations criticised give preference to the stone wall treatment rather than starting an open and honest conversation.

When celebrity vet Dr Evan Antin visited South Africa in November 2017, he posted numerous selfies and videos on social media petting lion cubs and cheetahs. He was called out by among others the Global March for Lions, Blood Lions, Youth for Lions, Captured in Africa Foundations and ourselves, and he is now shortlisted for the “Stony Silence Awards”.

Similarly, Mrs South Africa pageant kept a subterranean low profile, when they were exposed by Youth for Lions for using wildlife as photo props, in the hope all negative exposure would eventually disappear.

If companies respond to critical online feedback, it is often a minimal acknowledgement, like this tweet from Thompsons Holidays, who were criticised for promoting a resort directly linked with lion breeding and wildlife interaction.

How defamation lawsuits affect activism

What is even more worrying is the trend of issuing defamation charges that is emerging, one that I personally was on the receiving end of in 2017.

Once the initial shock subsides, you realise that these people are plain and simple bullies trying to silence your cause by intimidation. As my attorney so elegantly put it:

“….it is clear that your letter serves as nothing more than an attempt to intimidate and silence our clients with the effect of unjustifiably curtailing their right to freedom of expression.”

This erosion of our constitutional right of Freedom of Expression was also identified by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, who asked to be admitted as friend of the court in the case of the Australian company Mineral Commodities’ defamation suit against the Centre for Environmental Rights. This is a typical example of what is widely known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) – simply moves to censor, intimidate, and silence opposition. These SLAPP suits are illegal in many jurisdictions on the grounds that they impede Freedom of Speech, but sadly not in South Africa.

This dangerous and shocking trend is not only aimed at lobby groups and NGOs fighting for social and environmental justice, but also at journalists and newspapers. One of the latest examples is the South African Predator Association serving summons on Independent Media and journalist Shannon Ebrahim, following the publication of her article Canned lion hunting damaging Brand SA. (Update 09/02/2018: SA Predators Association drops case against Independent Media)

Often there is a huge power and financial assets imbalance, as was the case with Meghan Herning, who was threatened with a lawsuit by Taylor Swift’s legal team after Herning published a critical opinion piece on a small online platform of a writers collective.

As Otto Saki from the Ford Foundation rightly states:

“Lawsuits have a clear chilling effect on activism, silencing critical voices and stifling accountability.”

However, South African law provides us with some powerful defences, protecting Freedom of Speech and serving the public interest by ensuring that certain kinds of defamatory allegations can be made with impunity, as Helen Scott, Professor of Private Law at University of Cape Town, explains in her article Where South African defamation law stands on ‘naming and shaming’.

It is an alarming trend that so many organisations stay clear from open and honest debates with the concerned public and even more troublesome is the fact that defamation lawsuits are potentially time consuming and costly. However, if there is one thing I am absolutely certain of, it is that we should never give up on fighting for a cause that we truly believe in, especially one that is in the public interest.

I take courage from Brian Martin and Truda Gray, who encourage more people to use tactics that make injustices, such as suppressing free speech, backfire. So bring it on 2018, as many NGOs and lobby groups, including us, will continue to fight for social and environmental justice.