Appeals panel hears argument on whether HuffPost hoax was hateful

Adv Ben Winks, appearing for ex-editor Verashni Pillay, tells hearing that it was not

HuffPost SA blog about white men was ‘bad’ but not hateful, appeals panel hears

Johannesburg - Does a blog calling for white men to be disenfranchised amount to discrimination and hate speech?

The former editor of HuffPost SA, Verashni Pillay, argues no. Through her legal representative, Advocate Ben Winks, Pillay argued before Judge Bernard Ngoepe's Press Appeals Panel that the blog titled Could it be time to deny white men the franchise? did not constitute hate speech.

Pillay is appealing a ruling by the Press Ombudsman, Johan Retief.

"What is proposed in the blog is a bad idea. It is outlandish and supposedly offensive, but it doesn’t constitute the kind of hate speech outlined in the Constitution and the Press Code," Winks argued.

The blog was published by HuffPost SA under Pillay's editorship in April and called for white men to be disenfranchised for a period of 20 to 30 years.

Retief ruled that the publication of the blog violated numerous sections of the Press Code, and had "contributed to the erosion of public trust in the media". Retief found the blog to be "malicious" and "discriminatory".

Pillay subsequently resigned and HuffPost SA apologised for publishing the piece.

The respondent is the Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum, who argued for Retief's ruling to stand. The South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) and Media Monitoring Africa both argued Retief was wrong by calling the blog hate speech.

Fake blogger

The piece was published under the pseudonym Shelley Garland.

It was later established that Garland was, in fact, a fake blogger and that the piece had been written by a researcher at Centre for Development Enterprise, Marius Roodt.

Roodt had allegedly set out to prove the South African media was biased and didn't check facts. He has since resigned from his job.

The post was shared more than 55 000 times before being taken down.

Winks argued there were no denigrating remarks made toward white men in the piece and that there was nothing in the Constitution limiting the exchange of ideas unless they incited harm and advocated hatred towards those singled out in the blog.

Winks said there were no words in the article that came close to depriving white men of their human worth, dignity or equality and that the blog was not discriminatory.

He also argued that an extraordinarily high objective test had to be applied that went beyond looking at how the complainant was offended.

Based on this test, Winks said that hate speech is discriminatory and it creates the idea that one is less human - something he said the blog had not done. He said that AfriForum had implemented a very reductive interpretation of equality and discrimination.

He mentioned historical facts about white men wielding economic and political power, stating that merely writing these in an editorial or blog did not amount to a contravention of white men's rights to freedom of equality and to not be discriminated against.

Advocate Steve Budlender, for Sanef and MMA, concurred, adding that AfriForum had a "profound misunderstanding" of the term hate speech.

Freedom of expression

He said that everyone had freedom of expression, but the line was drawn if it dehumanised, incited harm or advocated hatred. He argued that Retief, in his "respectfully unhelpful ruling", did not tick these three requirements.

"Expressing strong feelings about white men is not hate speech, what you need is something that dehumanises them. [The blog] doesn't call for hatred, there is no statement manifesting ill will or any intrinsic characteristics making white men subhuman," he said.

He added that the tone of the blog was not aggressive; that rather, it was a poorly thought experiment. He said that even if it met the requirements for hate speech, it still did not have the weight to convince reasonable people to incite harm against white men or convince lawmakers to exclude white men from voting at the next election.

Budlender said any reasonable person would have dismissed the blog as a spoof that was poorly written by a faux academic.

Responding to AfriForum's claim that the blog was a call to action against white men, he said that this was a feeble call to action as there was no sentence in the blog asking people to sign up or register to get rid of white men from voting stations.

AfriForum's Advocate Mark Oppenheimer argued that it was hateful to say all white men were responsible for genocide, slavery, colonialism and it would vilify white men, allowing people to regard and see white men as second-class citizens.

"The language used combines all white males and attributes fault to the group as a whole," he argued.

Oppenheimer said that the blog and Pillay's subsequent editorial defence thereof were discriminatory on the grounds of race and gender as it singled out white men.

He said Pillay's editorial piece contributed to the idea that she endorsed the contents of the blog. He said that Pillay should have lambasted the opinion piece and unequivocally stated that she was against the expressions in the blog, or stated that the piece was satire.

He contended that the panel should not be biased in their application of the law, citing the racist estate agent Penny Sparrow as an example.

He said there was an outcry after her Facebook post in which she called black people monkeys appeared and subsequent swift action; but that this was not the case when a black person said something offensive to a white person.

Ngoepe reserved judgment.

- HuffPost SA is published by Media24