The SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) welcomes this week's ruling by the Appeals Panel of the Press Council of SA which served to uphold the values of the constitution when it comes to media freedom and hate speech.
In a victory for freedom of expression, Judge Bernard Ngoepe set aside Ombudsman Johan Retief's earlier ruling that comments contained in an opinion article published in Huffington Post South Africa earlier this year were discriminatory and amounted to hate speech.
The judge found that the Ombudsman had "erred" in ruling that the article had violated articles 5.1 and 5.2 of the Press Council code.
The article in question – "Could it be time to deny white men the franchise" was published on 13 April. It stirred up a storm of controversy after it emerged that the post was a hoax and the blogger a fake.
In upholding the appeal lodged by the former editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, Verashni Pillay - on the specific matter related to hate speech and unfair discrimination - the judge said that for an article to constitute hate speech, it needs to not only advocate hatred but also incite to cause harm.
"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," said Ngoepe.
The South African National Editors Forum and Media Monitoring Africa were amici curiae's in the appeal. Afriforum, which lodged the complaint, had argued that the comments by the blogger were both discriminatory and amounted to hate speech. It had argued that the blogger had singled out white men as a class of people deserving of different treatment and that it amounted to hate speech because it blamed white men for all the ills in the world.
Ngoepe, assisted by a panel of four public and press representatives, agreed with the argument put forward by SANEF and Media Monitoring Africa that the piece is "neither aggressive nor inflammatory; if anything, it is faux academic: measured and seeking to persuade through reasoning."
In the interests of media freedom and freedom of expression, it was imperative that the Ombud's ruling on hate speech was challenged, and SANEF welcomed the decision by Pillay to challenge it.
Pillay resigned as editor amid the storm of controversy that arose after it emerged that the blogger was in fact a hoax. The issues around the bogus nature of the blog were not a matter before the appeal judge.
The appeal ruling is significant as it reaffirms the values of the constitution when it comes to media freedom, and also clarifies the definition of what constitutes hate speech.
It reinforces the need for, and desirability of, robust debate within the parameters laid out in the constitution and reinforced by the press code.
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