Judgment reserved in lion ad case

2013-05-27 17:51

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Johannesburg - Judgment was reserved on Monday in an application to get the Airports Company SA (Acsa) to reinstate an advertising campaign against the trade in lion bones.

South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg acting Judge Frank Bashall said he hoped to hand down judgment after the upcoming court recess.

Global civil action group Avaaz took Acsa, a public company, and Primedia, which manages the advertising space at the airport, to court, to order them to reinstate the month-long campaign after it was taken down.

Stephen Budlender, for Avaaz, told the court the advert featured an image of a lioness looking down the barrel of a gun, with an image of President Jacob Zuma in the background.

It carried the line: "President Zuma can save her life."

The message underneath the image was: "Our lions are being slaughtered to make bogus sex potions for Asia.

"Will President Zuma save them? Urge him to stop the deadly bone trade now."

Speaking outside court, Avaaz campaign director Emma Ruby-Sachs said: "We showed with elephants the key thing that a government can do is to shut down a trade immediately."

Neither Zuma nor the presidency were respondents in the case.

Primedia said it would abide by the court's ruling.

Last year, Primedia was contracted to arrange the production and placement of the advertisement, with pre-approval of the content by its lawyer, for Avaaz.

The poster followed a petition to Zuma and correspondence with his office.

The court heard that the latest government statistics showed a 250 percent increase in lion bone exports between 2008 and 2010.

When a journalist asked for permission to photograph the advert, Acsa communications manager Solomon Makgale recommended that permission not be granted or images of the poster supplied, and that the journalist rather be referred to Primedia.

He also asked Acsa's then assistant general manager Tebogo Mekgoe to prepare a short statement about why the advertisement should not be allowed, and asked him how the situation should be managed.

In response, Mekgoe stated there was an "implicit message" that Zuma was standing by and "complicit" in the killing, and he was concerned about a "public relations nightmare".

Acsa told Primedia to remove the advertisement after a one-hour meeting, without consulting Avaaz, and the advert was taken down on 16 August.

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Avaaz submitted this constituted a breach of its contract with Primedia, of the constitutional right to freedom of expression, and of the constitutional right to administrative action in terms of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act.

Budlender said as an organ of state, Acsa had a constitutional duty to protect freedom of expression and that the advert was not unlawful in any way.

Acsa said it was within its rights, because the advertisement was not good for the country's image.

Forty images of a large firearm aggressively pointed at a lioness would be inappropriate, because the country already had a negative image because of its levels of crime.

These could reinforce the impression of South Africa as a violent place, which would not be conducive to tourism and not in keeping with South Africa's "brand".

Anthony Sawna SC, for Acsa, said many people arriving in the country would not be able to read or understand the text of the advertisement.

Through a clause in its concession agreement with Primedia, it undertook not to display any advertisement which, in Acsa's opinion, not subject to arbitration, was "unsightly or objectionable".

Primedia had to remove offending material within 24 hours.

Sawna's colleague Kate Hofmeyr told the court Acsa accepted that its decision had affected Avaaz's right to freedom of expression.

"Acsa unequivocally accepts that its decision to take down these advertisements impacted [on Avaaz's] freedom of expression and the public's right to receive that expression," she said.

However, the Constitution allowed a balance between Avaaz's rights and Acsa's rights as custodians of the image of the country.

"Forty images on four sides of 10 pillars at the international arrivals hall do not represent the best image of the country," said Hofmeyr.

The decision was not made by one person, but after a one-hour meeting between four people, she said.

Acsa had been rational and reasonable in its actions to protect "Brand SA", she contended.

Avaaz also had other avenues for expression, such as the internet.

In closing, Budlender said: "That the notion of freedom of expression can be curtailed because it doesn't make the country look good is a startling proposition."

This justification was last used during apartheid, towards books and other materials.

"Simply, because what is good for a country, differs."

Read more on:    acsa  |  avaaz  |  johannesburg  |  advertising  |  animals

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