Qwelane falls foul of press code

The Sunday Sun was “disparaging” of homosexuals in publishing a column by reporter Jon Qwelane headlined “Call me names, but gay is NOT
okay”, the press ombudsman has found.

Ombudsman Joe Thloloe received nearly 1 000 complaints after the paper published the column, he said in a statement on Tuesday.

He found the newspaper had contravened the press code on three counts by:

  • publishing denigratory references to people’s sexual orientation in the column by Qwelane;
  • implying that homosexuals were a lower breed than heterosexuals; and
  • publishing an accompanying cartoon disparaging of homosexuals.
Thloloe ordered that the paper publish an appropriate apology to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, but noted that it had already gone a long way to making amends for its offence.

The Jo’burg Gay Pride Festival had described the column as “a piece that amounts to hate speech”, said Thloloe.

The festival’s board also argued that the column “compares homosexual relations to relations between animal and man, and this means that the writer equates homosexuality with bestiality”.

Qwelane’s column (PDF)

Read the full text of Jon Qwelane’s column in the Sunday Sun

It contended that comment such as Qwelane’s could incite violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender South Africans.

Thloloe found that the thrust of the column was a call for a revision of the country’s Constitution to take away the rights that gays and lesbians had won in the new South Africa.

“This is the same type of debate as those on the death penalty and on proportional representation. Debates about amendments to the Constitution are protected under the freedom of speech clauses of the Constitution. Qwelane has the right to call for amendments.”

Although Qwelane expressed reservations about homosexuality and put down gays and lesbians, he did not advocate hatred or the harming of gays and lesbians.

“It is robust language, but not hate speech,” said Thloloe.

He also did not equate homosexuality with bestiality.

“What he does say is that after allowing gay marriages it will not be long before we legalise bestiality.
He is not equating the two, but placing them on different rungs on a ladder, with bestiality lower. By implication however he is placing heterosexuality higher.”

Asked whether the column could lead to violence against gays and lesbians, Thloloe responded: “To me it appears most unlikely.”

There was nothing in the column inciting hatred and calling for the harming of homosexuals.

“Columnists are protected by the Constitution for as long as their comments don’t propagate war, incite imminent violence and advocate hatred that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

“Qwelane was well within the law but fell foul of the press code.”

Thloloe found that, to the credit of the Sunday Sun, it responded to the outcry with a poster about the lashing that Qwelane got from readers, a flag on its front page about him taking a beating and a page of readers’ letters condemning him and the newspaper.

However, he observed that “it still fell short of apologising”.

Thloloe also noted the argument of Sunday Sun publisher Deon du Plessis, who wrote in an editorial: “Let Qwelane speak—as he did last week. Let those who disagree also speak—as they do this week. Hopefully we’ll learn more about each other along the way.”

These were “noble sentiments” in defence of freedom of speech, but there were rules of public debate which had to be followed, especially in the press, Thloloe found.

It was “not a bad judgement”, said Du Plessis on Tuesday, describing it as “pretty even-handed”.

Asked about the apology, he said: “Let’s see what he wants me to apologise for ... Let’s see what terms he wants.”

Du Plessis would not comment on whether action would be taken against Qwelane.

He said he would be reviewing the matter on Wednesday, adding: “The process is unfinished.” - Sapa

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