Former HuffPost SA editor slams ‘bizarre’ hate speech ruling

22 August 2017 - 20:21 By Neo Goba
File photo.
File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

Former editor-in-chief of Huffington Post South Africa Verashni Pillay has severely criticised Press Ombudsman Johan Retief's hate speech ruling earlier this year which resulted in her resigning‚ labelling it "bizarre".

This comes as the ruling‚ which found the HuffPost guilty of serious misconduct for publishing hate speech‚ was overturned by the appeals panel of the Press Council on Monday.

"The decision by the appeals panel to set aside the ruling that the HuffPost blog‚ and my response‚ was hate speech as well as discriminatory‚ is a win not just for me but for freedom of speech and debate in South Africa. The ruling by press ombudsman Johan Retief set a ludicrous precedent for hate speech‚ which is ordinarily very carefully defined in our jurisprudence‚" Pillay told TimesLIVE.

"Ignoring this and international precedent‚ Retief unilaterally decided to change the tests for what constitutes hate and discriminatory speech‚ saying in his original ruling: 'Let me be short and sweet: If disenfranchisement of anybody (whether white males or black females‚ for that matter) is not discriminatory‚ the meaning of discrimination should be redefined.' This is bizarre. It [is] not his job to redefine legal terms‚" said Pillay.

Pillay‚ who gave the approval for the article to be published while she was the editor‚ said applying such a high bar to what constitutes hate speech in society has dangerous knock-on effects for democracy. She said views that need to be aired and challenged are driven to the "fringes of our society and necessary conversations about redress are limited". Asked if she ever agreed with Retief's previous ruling in April when HuffPost was found guilty of being in breach of section 5.2 of the Code and that it was inflammatory‚ discriminatory and targeting a specific group of people‚ Pillay said that she had never shared the same views.

"At no time did I agree with the ombudsman ruling. Before I resigned‚ the editorial team at HuffPost SA referred the matter to the press ombudsman for comment and had planned on publishing what he said but this was on the understanding that it would be a legally sound comment. It was not‚" she said.

Following the ruling‚ Pillay resigned and apologised for the blog titled “Could it be time to deny white men the franchise?” after it was revealed that the blogger “Shelly Garland” was fake in May this year.

"I resigned without making any call on the ruling and shortly afterwards management at Media24 and HuffPost SA published the ruling and complied with it despite the outcry over how problematic it was. They did this on the same day the ruling came out‚ despite having seven days to consider an appeal‚" she said.

Pillay then appealed the ruling and the appeals panel of the Press Council on Monday released its ruling that the blog did not amount to hate speech.

The ombud originally found HuffPost in breach of section 5.2 of the press code and said because the blog was “inflammatory‚ discriminatory and targeting a specific group of people”‚ the text could be described as hate speech.

"This meant the ruling set a precedent for the rest of the industry which caused great consternation for many - even leading the director of the Press Council‚ Joe Thloloe‚ to attempt an appeal. In the end I was asked by concerned parties to appeal in the interests of our democracy‚ as I had the best standing to do so. I was grateful to have Sanef and Media Monitoring Africa join me as amicus in the matter‚" said Pillay.

According to Pillay‚ Media24 and HuffPost were under no obligation to comply with the ruling "just because we referred the matter to the ombud before my resignation".

She added that Media24 and HuffPost could have and should have appealed and used their significant resources to do so‚ given how important this matter was in terms of setting precedent.

"When they did not do so‚ I was obliged to appeal it and had to rely on pro bono legal help to do so. When I resigned I noted my respect for the office of the ombudsman and specifically not the ruling because I disagreed with it‚" she said.

She also accused both Media24 and HuffPost of offering her no support regarding the matter and effectively "kowtowed to AfriForum" by complying with the ruling.