Press ombud hate speech ruling on HuffPost SA set aside

The Press Council of South Africa has set aside a hate speech ruling made by press ombudsman Johan Retief on a blog post published by the Huffington Post SA, which called for white men to be disenfranchised.

Former HuffPost SA editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay appealed the ruling in May 2017.

The blog, titled “Could it be time to deny white men the franchise?”, ignited controversy after it was revealed the author had used a pseudonym, Shelley Garland. It argued for white men to be denied their vote in determining future leaders in South Africa.

AfriForum lodged a complaint against the blog with the press ombud, who then ruled that it constitutes hate speech.

But the appeals panel of the press council, headed by Judge Bernard Ngoepe, has overturned the ruling. “It could well be that the piece irritated or annoyed some people; but to classify it as a hate speech would be too huge a jump,” the Appeals Panel said in its ruling.

In her appeal, Pillay criticised Retief’s ruling because, she argued, it failed to specifically state which aspects of the blog were discriminatory. She said the ombudsman failed to identify which references to people’s statuses were “discriminatory and denigratory” in the context of the blog and “whether such references were “strictly relevant” and made “in the public interest”.

Because the blog also mentions different groups such as “whites”, “males” and “white males”, she argued that the ombud did not specify exactly which remarks were being scrutinised.

She added that the blog did not incite hatred of white men,but rather “depicts them as disproportionately powerful, economically and politically, and as historically having used that power at the expense of other groups”.

AfriForum was the respondent in the appeal, while Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) joined as amici curiae to make submissions.

Retief, in his ruling, said the blog violated section 5 of the Press Code, which deals with discrimination and hate speech.

The press council said article 5.2 of the Press Code refers to hate speech and discrimination as “material that amounts to … incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to harm”.

Ngoepe found that for the content to be declared hate speech it must incite both hatred and harm. He found the blog did neither.

“To amount to hate speech, what is said should not only advocate hatred, but also be an incitement to cause harm. Both elements must exist. The test for the likely effect of the words is an objective one; that is, how an ordinary reasonable or intelligent reader would understand the words. In our view, the piece complained about does not pass the test,” Ngoepe said in his ruling.

He agreed with arguments presented by MMA and Sanef, which said the blog was not inflammatory. Instead, Ngoepe described it as “faux academic”.

It also couldn’t be ascribed as hate speech, Ngoepe said, because the blog’s argument wouldn’t succeed.

“Secondly, it is hard to see it causing white men being disenfranchised. That, in any case, would be constitutionally impossible in this country, given the immutable constitutional principles,” Ngoepe said in the ruling.

Pillay, who was editor of the Mail & Guardian before moving to HuffPost SA, resigned from the publication after the blog was published. HuffPost SA removed the blog from its website and issued an apology at the time. 

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Small towns not ready for level 3

Officials in Beaufort West, which is on a route that links the Cape with the rest of the country, are worried relaxed lockdown regulations mean residents are now at risk of contracting Covid-19

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday