Media self-regulation is indeed working

2017-08-27 06:00
Janet Heard

Janet Heard

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The significance of this week’s Press Council Appeals Panel ruling by Judge Bernard Ngoepe, in setting aside the ombud’s finding on hate speech, should not get drowned out amid all the other layers of noise.

Not only was the judge’s finding important for freedom of expression and for reaffirming the principles of the Constitution, but it demonstrates the effective functionality of the current media Press Council and, importantly, its ability to self-correct in the public interest.

The infamous blog post, Could it Be Time to Deny White Men the Franchise, was published in The Huffington Post SA. It turned out to be a fake and a hoax, resulting in the editor in chief Verashni Pillay apologising and resigning.

But the origin of the post – and the scandal that erupted about how a bogus blog saw the light of day in the first place – was not under the consideration of the appeals panel. What Ngoepe and his four-member team were tasked with deliberating was whether the comments in the article constituted hate speech.

Ombudsman Johan Retief had agreed with the complainant, AfriForum, that the comments were discriminatory and amounted to hate speech, in part because it “blamed white men for all the ills in the world”.

But Ngoepe disagreed. He pointed to the Constitution that defines what constitutes hate speech in a caveat to the principles of freedom of expression.

For an article to constitute hate speech, it needs to not only advocate hatred but also incite and inflame to cause harm, said Ngoepe. “It could well be that the piece irritated or annoyed some people; but to classify it as hate speech would be too huge a jump,” he said.

The ruling is important for drafters of the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, which was published for public comment late last year and is now being revised before being resubmitted to Cabinet.

The hate-speech element was hastily included in the bill amid the toxic outpouring of hateful racist comments on social media recently.

Media-freedom groups have submitted that, while it was crucial to tackle hate crimes, the bill went too far when it defined hate speech and existing legislation covered this terrain. In terms of the bill, for instance, it would be a criminal offence to bring contempt and ridicule on to groupings, politicians and executives, which would impact heavily on jokes and political satire.

It would also have impacted on freedom of expression had Retief’s ruling not been challenged, as it would have set a dangerous precedent for what constituted hate speech. Ngoepe rebuked the ombud, saying he had “erred”.

The need to challenge Retief’s ruling was of such public importance that, initially, the executive director of the Press Council, Joe Thloloe, lodged his intention to appeal.

Then Pillay, assisted by a pro bono lawyer, lodged an appeal, with the SA National Editors’ Forum and Media Monitoring Africa joining as amici curiae.

These proactive challenges are positive signs for the efficacy of the Press Code and system of press regulation, and all the more reason for the ANC to back off with its simmering threat to introduce a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal.

Heard is a council member of Sanef

Read more on:    sanef  |  media  |  press

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