NEWS

Huffington Post Apologises For 'Shelley Garland' Hate Speech Blog

The press ombudsman says HuffPost SA should never have published the 'malicious' and 'discriminatory' blog.

22/04/2017 16:02 SAST | Updated 22/04/2017 16:07 SAST
Gallo Images
"Indeed, that is what the Code of Ethics and Conduct is all about – to ensure that the freedom that this country has finally obtained, is protected by not abusing it. Each and every section of the Code has this aim as its main purpose. " - Johan Retief, the press ombudsman, in the finding against Huffington Post South Africa.

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.

Johan Retief found HuffPost SA to be guilty of a tier-3 breach (serious misconduct) of the South African Code of Ethics and Conduct and said the "Shelley Garland" blog was:

  • discriminatory and denigratory;
  • amounted to hate speech;
  • malicious;
  • against the public interest;
  • contained factual inaccuracies; and
  • impaired the dignity and reputation of many people.

He added HuffPost blamed its editorial sytem and workflow, rather than probing deeper into the racist and sexist nature of the blog.

Andreij Horn, head of 24.com, a division of Media24, said the company regrets 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."

The ombud received complaints from Dr. Christopher McCreanor, Sean King and Ernst Roets, the deputy chief executive from the rights group AfriForum.

McCreanor said HuffPost should be held accountable for publishing a blog inciting discrimination against white males and that it supported hate towards the demographic by suggesting that they lose their right to vote.

King's complaint was the same as McCreanor's, but added that the blog's published defence by Verashni Pillay, editor-in-chief, was contrary to the values of the Constitution, the Code as well as Media24's strategy and core values.

Roets' complaint was similar to McCreanor and King's complaints, but further stated Pillay never repudiated the blog's content and agreed with its crux. He added even though the blog was taken down Pillay "never once said the content of the article had anything to do with her decision to take the blog down".

The blog argued that white men have been the architects of much that has gone wrong with the world in recent times and that Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and the Democratic Alliance's (DA) takeover of four of South Africa's metro's would not have happened if it wasn't for the actions of white men. It further proposed that white men's voting rights should be taken away.

Retief cited the Bill of Rights, quoted in the Code, saying that the freedom the country obtained in 1994 "is protected by not abusing it", but that the ombud must be careful not to unnecessarily curb freedom of speech.

"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 says.

"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."

The ombud found HuffPost in breach of section 5.2 of the Code and said because the blog was "inflammatory, discriminatory and targeting a specific group of people" the text can be described as hate speech.

"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. I therefore have little hesitation in labelling the content of the blog as hate speech, and therefore in breach of the Code," Retief says.

The Code protects extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced opinion under specific circumstances, but found the blog to fall short of these prescripts.

"The problem with the blog is not that the opinions in it were extreme, but rather that it was not in the public interest (rather against it), that it can be described as malicious and also that it has not taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true, for example, the blog is demonstrably wrong with its statistics about ownership on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange.

"Garland's freedom to express her opinions does not extend to the above, and the same goes for HuffPost. It should have refused to publish the blog, that is, if it wanted to adhere to the Code," Retief says.

He also found that HuffPost should have verified the blogger's identity and that publishing without it HuffPost contributed to the erosion of public trust in the media.

Retief found Pillay, as editor-in-chief, should take responsibility for everything carried in her publication and even though she doesn't have to agree with everything, must ensure that it does not breach the code.

He said her defences of the blog left the reader with the impression that she supports the gist of Garland's argument. She further reinforced this idea by justifying the blog's removal from the site on the basis of the writer's identity, not the blog's content.

"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 to pursue her view, but then she must know that this is not possible within the confines of the Code," Retief says.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.