The removal of a billboard graphically explaining the expanding Israeli occupation of Palestinian land looks set to culminate in a legal battle.
“We have decided to take legal action for the withdrawal of the advertisement by Continental Outdoor Media,” said Muhammed Desai, co-ordinator of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign South Africa that, with the Palestine Solidarity Alliance, purchased several similar advertisements on billboard structures across South Africa last month.
Desai said that Continental Outdoor Media had “no right” to remove the billboard advertisement that was situated on the M1 highway in Johannesburg two days after putting it up.
“We are taking this to the courts on the grounds of freedom of expression,” he said.
“To make matters worse, they did not consult with us or with the Advertising Standards Authority before removing it.”
According to Desai, the advertising company had been “pressured by members of the Israeli lobby to remove the advertisement in question”.
But Barry Sayer, chief executive of Continental Outdoor Media, denied that he had been under pressure to do so. “We have been under no threat, harassment or financial pressure from any sector of the community,” he said in an email to the Mail & Guardian.
Correspondence and comments
“The display of the billboard in question did draw significant comment in written form, by telephone and by postings on our website.
“I naturally did not ask people with whom I spoke [about] their religious affiliation, but concede by the correspondence and comments on radio and our website that it is reasonable to deduce that significant contention was created within the Jewish community.”
Sayer said he had removed the advertisement because it was the policy of his company not to display advertising that may be deemed “offensive” or “contentious” by any sector of the community.
Asked why he had allowed the advertisement in the first place, he said it was because of a failing in the company’s system, which had since been rectified.
The Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation welcomed the removal of the advertisement. “On contact with the owners of the billboard site, their error was immediately acknowledged and literally within six working hours (not counting the weekend) of the billboard having gone up it was removed from the site.
“We would like to express our thanks to the Jewish community for showing and voicing their concern over this issue and would like to assure you of our commitment to ensuring that the rights and beliefs of all those who care and support Israel is defended at all times,” they said in a joint statement.
Ben Swartz, South African Zionist Federation spokesperson, said that the organisation supported the principle of freedom of expression.
“At the same time we realise that the sensitivities and red lines of every community exist and need to be respected. We would actually expect that as a sign of understanding that the promoters of the remaining billboards hear our call and remove the remaining billboards from the public domain.”
A spokesperson for the Johannesburg metroplitican council, Thabo Rangwaga, said although bylaws prohibited “signage” that is “insensitive” to any religious group, the city found it “unfortunate that a billboard had to be taken down for depicting the factual realities that Palestine is facing”.