Cape Town - The Huffington Post has been ordered to apologise to the public for publishing a ''racist and sexist'' blog that incited hate speech, titled "Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?".
In a strongly worded finding, Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said editor Verashni Pillay had violated numerous sections of the Press Code, and had "contributed to the erosion of public trust in the media".
The publication, which was launched last year as a sister to News24 in the Media24 stable, has already complied fully with the ombud's order to publish an apology of equal prominence and position to the blog, and has included a linked copy of the full finding, as ordered.
"The Press Ombudsman of South Africa has found the Huffington Post South Africa guilty of the publication of hate speech.
''HuffPost SA apologises unreservedly for the publication of the blog titled Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise on 13 April 2017.''
It also quoted Andreij Horn, head of 24.com, a division of Media24, as saying the company regretted the incident.
"A number of in-depth interventions will be, and in some instances, have already been, implemented to address processes and attitudes that caused this situation. The investigation into the incident is at an advanced stage and will be concluded early next week," Horn said.
'Targeting a specific group of people'
The Ombud's investigation was in response to complaints from AfriForum's Deputy CEO Ernst Roets, Dr Christopher McCreanor and Mr Shean King, after Huffington Post published work by supposed feminist researcher Shelley Garland. It emerged that Garland was a pseudonym for Centre for Development and Enterprise researcher Marius Roodt, who said he had wanted to make a point about the media. He has since resigned.
Retief cut straight to the chase.
"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. Moreover, the reasons given for such a malicious suggestion certainly were denigratory.
"I do not believe that this statement needs any further justification."
He continued: "I do not believe for one moment that such discriminatory and denigratory opinions can be described as being in the public interest - especially given this country's history of its struggle for liberation. To disenfranchise a section of the population once again would indeed represent a huge step backwards - one that may have some serious unforeseen consequences."
He found that the blog contained hate speech and breached Section 5 of the Press Code, for being "inflammatory, discriminatory and targeting a specific group of people".
'Breach of the code'
He felt it did not specifically propagate violence, but that if the actions advocated in the piece were put into practice, it would do just that.
"I therefore have little hesitation in labelling the contents of the blog as hate speech, and therefore in breach of the code."
As comment it was not protected because, although freedom of speech allowed "luxuries" such as extreme speech, it was not protected if it was against the public interest, and if material facts - such as allegations about the ownership of the JSE in the blog - were wrong.
"It should have refused to publish the blog - that is, if it wanted to adhere to the Code of Ethics and Conduct," he said.
Retief wrote that, when Pillay responded to questions about the blog, she had stated that Garland was "an activist and feminist currently completing an MA degree in philosophy", leaving no doubt about the person's identity, or any hint that Huffington Post had not identified the writer.
The publication, not the writer, had published the blog, Retief continued, having earlier explained that some platforms allowed writers to self-publish.
"But the situation gets worse," he said, referring to Pillay's defence of the ideas in the blog as "pretty standard for feminist theory". Because of this, she should not blame the reader for thinking she supported the gist of Garland's piece.
'Discriminatory and denigratory to white males'
Pillay had removed the blog, not because of the content, but over doubts about Garland's identity, and had treated it as a "slip" or an "accident", when it was actually a mistake by the editor and the editorial team.
"Let me be painfully clear about this: If it is Pillay's belief that the gist of Garland's article is correct, she is free to believe that and pursue her view - but then she must know that this is not possible within the confines of the code."
Retief said he was not mandated to decide whether Pillay had violated the Constitution or Media24 and Huffington Post's Strategy and Core Values, nor could he recommend that she be fired.
"By publishing this blog without having identified the author, The Huffiington Post was not true to this commitment, and contributed to the erosion of public trust in the media," he said.
"The blog was discriminatory and denigratory to white males, and impaired the dignity of some men in this group. By publishing, she also impaired the dignity of some white men, a breach of Section 3.3 of the code which cautions the media to 'exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation...'"