Press Council appeals panel explains HuffPost blog's ruling on 'white men' blog
22 August 2017
Cape Town - A controversial blog that HuffPost SA published in April, entitled "Could it be time to deny white men the franchise", cannot be seen as discriminatory or classified as hate speech, the appeals panel of the Press Council ruled on Tuesday.
Appeals panel chair Judge Bernard Ngoepe had been tasked with considering whether the Press Ombudsman ruled correctly that the blog had breached the press code of ethics and conduct for these reasons.
Ombudsman Johan Retief had said the blog violated numerous sections of the code, and had "contributed to the erosion of public trust in the media".
"I accept that the text itself did not directly propagate violence - but if the actions it advocates were ever put into practice, they might well lead to just that," he said at the time, when labelling the content of the blog as hate speech.
He deemed the breaches of the code to be tier 3 offences, which amounted to serious misconduct.
Civil body AfriForum and other complainants had approached the Press Council following the publication of the blog online.
The blog was written by "Shelley Garland", who was described as an activist and feminist, completing an MA degree in philosophy.
Huffpost SA retracted the piece when they could not verify Garland's identity.
'Far cry from being denigratory'
It then emerged that Garland was a pseudonym that political science graduate Marius Roodt had used when writing the piece.
His actions were apparently motivated by a desire to highlight the state of journalism and editorial practices in the country.
He resigned from his position as researcher at the Centre for Development and Enterprise.
Verashni Pillay resigned as editor of HuffPost SA following the ombudsman's findings on April 22.
She later lodged an appeal.
Ngoepe first looked at complaints and the subsequent ruling that the blog had unfairly discriminated against white men.
"In the present case, as Mr Winks for the appellant pointed out, the blog conveys the very opposite about white men: It portrays them as being virtually superhuman, powerful and dominant," said Ngoepe.
"This depiction of them is a far cry from being denigratory. We, therefore, disagree with the Ombud's ruling that the piece amounted to discrimination."
He then dealt with the finding that the blog advocated hate speech on the grounds of race and gender.
Ngoepe said that for something to amount to hate speech, it had to not only advocate hatred, but also be an incitement to cause harm.
'Nothing more than a spoof'
He said the appeals panel felt the piece did not pass this test.
"As Mr Budlender for the amici curiae pointed out, the piece is neither aggressive nor inflammatory; if anything, it is faux academic: Measured and seeking to persuade through reasoning. How persuasive the reasoning is, is of course another matter."
It was hard to see the piece causing white men to be disenfranchised, said Ngoepe.
This would be impossible in any event, given South Africa's constitutional principles.
"The call was for them to be disenfranchised, but how real was the risk of that materialising? In this respect, there is much to be said for the argument that the blog was nothing more than a spoof," he said.
"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. Therefore, we are afraid that here too, we disagree with the Ombud."
He, thus, set aside the Ombudsman's ruling.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Pillay thanked her lawyer Ben Winks for taking on the case pro bono .
She suggested that the ombudsman needed to be held accountable for the original judgment.