Press council exec director appeals ombud ruling on HuffPostSA

Executive director of the Press Council of South Africa Joe Thloloe. (Paul Botes)

Executive director of the Press Council of South Africa Joe Thloloe. (Paul Botes)

Joe Thloloe, the executive director of the Press Council of South Africa, has lodged an application for leave to appeal the hate speech ruling on a blog published by the Huffington Post South Africa calling for the disenfranchisement of white men.

Huffington Post South Africa reported that Thloloe lodged the application on Tuesday

The Press Ombud Johan Retief ruled on Friday that a blog titled “Could it be time to deny white men the franchise” constituted hate speech. The damning ruling indicted both Huffington Post SA and former editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay of failing to verify the identity of the author and for not checking untrue facts in the piece.

Retief said that Huffington Post SA had not adequately questioned the content of the blog, which singled out white men

The ombud ruled that Huffington Post SA is guilty of a tier-3 breach (serious misconduct) of the South African Code of Ethics and Conduct.

Pillay’s resignation with immediate effect was announced on Saturday following the outcome of the ombud ruling.

The Huffington Post SA published an apology and has said that it will now put processes in place to verify writers that contribute to its blog platform.

Pillay’s resignation signaled that the Huffington Post SA would not appeal the Press Ombud ruling despite criticism of it. Media law expert Dario Milo tweeted on Saturday that labeling the blog hate speech “is wrong”.

Thloloe said in his application that Pillay had written to him to ask whether she could appeal the ruling in her individual capacity, as opposed to on behalf of the publication following her resignation. His advice was that it was no longer possible but has decided to appeal the ruling as head of the Press Council in the public interest.

“I believe it is right that I bring this application before you in the public interest and in my capacity as leader of the Press Council,” Thloloe wrote in his application.

The full application, published by Huffington Post South Africa, is below:

Dear Judge Ngoepe,

This is an application for leave to appeal against the attached ruling by Press Ombud Dr Johan Retief with the goal of getting the Appeals Panel to give a definitive decision that will guide the Press Council in its work going forward. The ruling has ignited a veld fire of commentary in the media from practitioners, media freedom activists, academics and the public in general. Also attached are two of the comments from the scores that have landed in my inbox.

Locus standi
As you know, I am Executive Director of the Press Council, with a mandate to “lead the Press Council on a full-time, professional basis” and to “concentrate on public engagements regarding issues of ethical journalism and media freedom”.

This is not quite virgin territory we are entering. The Press Council, through its Public Advocate, already has the ability to initiate complaints. Clause 1.9 of the Complaints Procedures states:

Where, within 30 working days after the date of publication there has been no complaint, but the Public Advocate is of the view that a prima facie contravention of the Press Code has been committed and it is in the public interest, he or she may file a complaint with the Ombud for adjudication…”

In this matter, Huffington Post has accepted and implemented the Ombud’s sanctions. The person who was editor of the publication at the time of the ruling, Verashni Pillay, has subsequently resigned from her position and thus may no longer appeal on behalf of HuffPost. She has written to me to ask if it is possible to appeal as an individual. Under normal circumstances, the next logical person to bring this application should be the Public Advocate, but because for the duration of the proceedings before the Ombud, she was the “champion” of the complainants, she cannot now switch horses.

I believe it is right that I bring this application before you in the public interest and in my capacity as leader of the Press Council.

Hate Speech
The Ombud’s ruling traverses two sections of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media, Discrimination and Hate Speech (5) and Protected Comment (7). The Press Council now seeks clarity from its highest adjudication wing, the Appeals Panel, on how to interpret these clauses going forward. Your ruling would then guide the work of the Public Advocate, the Ombud and indeed the Press Council.

Regards,

Joe.

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