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Johan Retief's Ruling Mounts To A Blanket Silencing Of Debate

23/04/2017 13:52 SAST | Updated 23/04/2017 15:11 SAST
PONTSHO MABENA

The debate about the Huffington Post SA's now deleted blog by a person with a fake identity and its recently resigned editor, Verashni Pillay is very important. While it has been easy for many to bash Pillay for some obvious editorial failings, it is important to set out clearly what she should be expected to account for.

We should be clear in our minds that we do not conflate failure of editorial process before publication, and judgment AFTER the publication of an article. Differentiating between the two is very important, as I shall set out later.

We must also not allow the fake identity of the author of that blog to cloud our judgment about the matters of principle at hand. This is because the fake identity issue is a red herring. Even if the true identity had not been hidden, there are very important principles at play nonetheless – including the selective silencing of views some of our compatriots may not like.

It was poor of the Huffington Post to not ascertain whether or not an external contributor was a real person. This is because later the person may be needed in case there is a Press Council inquiry. Also some edits may need to be run past a contributor so their full contact details are essential.

Finally editors check for plagiarism, and with Google available these days, it is routine to run a check on an author and what they have written. You also check the facts attached to the arguments and ask the writer to use the correct facts. I am not certain the Huffington Post did this; otherwise the fake identity issue may not have arisen at all.

There is nothing wrong in publishing an article under a pseudonym, by the way. The Rand Daily Mail publishes long essays by one 'Lily Gosam'. The only proviso is that the editor must know the real identity of the writer and be in agreement on the reasons for the concealment thereof. It is during this process that the motives of the author of that blog may have become clear, and the editor may have had a basis for rethinking whether or not to publish.

That is quite apart from censoring the content of the blog itself because it may offend. Protection from offense is not an automatic right. It is also not the job of editors to protect their readers from views they may not like either. If that were so there would hardly be a reason to have a publication at all. Invariably, either in the news or opinion section, somebody would find something offensive.

I also believe Pillay further dug herself into a hole with her handling of the matter after it blew up. Social media debate can put undue pressure to deliver a position in minutes or hours when careful consideration is required. I think she succumbed to this pressure and got herself into more trouble with explanations that were incoherent in parts and muddled the issues at play.

What is suggested in the blog itself is, as a friend pointed out to me, no more incendiary than the reader comments one sees on some prominent news sites. Some of the most horrid racism, homophobia and misogyny are commonplace. For a long time News24 reader comments were known for exactly this.

Just the other day we were debating Helen Zille's comments on colonialism by which she still stands. These offended many black people. Cartoonist, Zapiro and Brett Murray of "The Spear" fame are also another case in point. These are all people who were using platforms owned and curated by others to publish their views and work.

In May 2015 as Editor of the Business Day I had to make a decision on whether I should retain the late Allister Sparks' column after he called Hendrik Verwoerd "smart". These comments outraged many black people. I retained him and many of those advocating that Pillay must be chased to the hills today supported my decision then. For the record, for the reasons given then, some of which apply to the Huffington Post issue, I stand by my decision.

We must therefore reflect upon the inconsistency in the reaction to Pillay in relation to what has for so long been allowed to pass as commentary before. It is intimately connected to what I am about to set out below.

The next issue to consider therefore is whether the view that white men should (globally, I understood) be denied the right to vote for a period so that the rest of us, including white women, should fix the problems they have caused. This is in a case in which this very blogger or another, was insisting on their views following editorial checks which were borne out by the required factual information.

Let me first deal with the unconstitutionality of this view. It is common cause that it is because the right to vote does not hinge on race. This is what we were and cannot, and will not be going back to it. It is therefore a view that is violently inconsistent with our Constitution.

Publishing views that are inconsistent with the Constitution is not wrong, however. There are many South Africans who believe the death penalty should return. It would be wrong to propose that those views must now be silenced.

Others believe that land should be confiscated from white people without paying them a cent for it. We read about this in newspapers and hear of it on other platforms without anyone demanding that the editors concerned must resign.

There is a clear difference between proposing such a legislative step and inciting people to go and attack or hate a certain group of people. This is particularly true in a country like ours where there is an accurate and recorded context where the three centuries and a half to 1994 are a period during which Europeans; white men in particular, violently and systematically dispossessed and then oppressed black people. This is what colonialism and apartheid were about. No matter how uncomfortable this fact is, it is not the job of any editor to cushion the force of its reality from those who may find it objectionable to state it.

I know it is uncomfortable for some to hear or read people say this: There is a global political and economic racial order on top of which are white males. It is historical fact and is borne out by Europe's military and economic hegemony for the centuries that preceded America's global power. America itself, however, is a country so dominated by white men that they make decisions on women's rights without women being present.

This is why we have the socioeconomic asymmetries we have in our own country, where a white child is more likely to have better opportunities in life than a black child. This is why we have the BEE Act, the Employment Equity Act and other legislation. They are there to ensure that the racial inequalities, from which white men have historically benefited the most, do not continue and threaten our nation-building project.

Stating these facts is not racist, although many South Africans believe it is, and that the laws mentioned above are racist.

We must therefore guard against the use of incorrect information by the fake Huffington Post blogger to smother what remains a historical fact, and is the trigger for the moral imperative to put legitimate, constitutional special measures in place to advance black people.

It is precisely in the discussion about how to rebalance society from white male dominance that some may propose unconstitutional means, such as disenfranchising white males. Publishing in an open democracy is about giving citizens an opportunity to vigorously disagree in this way without resorting to violence or inciting it. As a debate it may be quite pointless but there is no law prohibiting people from having a largely pointless philosophical or political debate about one thing or another, such as whether or not the death penalty would solve our problems with violent crime.

This is why determining whether the blog amounted to racist hate speech directed at white men is important. I do not recall that there was any incitement in it. One of the editorial failures here was that the Huffington Post, as the curator of the views of its bloggers, needed to get in touch with the writer and ask them to make their views clearer in this respect.

The Press Ombud's ruling is also as poor as the Huffington Post's editorial processes, unfortunately. The manner in which Press Ombud, Johan Retief frames his reasoning for the finding against the Huffington Post is dangerous for democracy because it amounts to a blanket silencing of debate, which often involves people straying off constitutional limits.

In any case I understood the blogger to be picking on white males, not whites as a race. This is not splitting hairs in a world where white women are also yet to regain their rightful place in a world dominated by white men. Retief disregards this completely.

As I explained in my Allister Sparks decision, such decisions need to be capable of consistent application in future. If we follow Retief's logic, editors may not in future publish any views that advocate the expropriation of land from white people without compensation.

Were I Verashni Pillay's boss I would have held her to account for the editorial process failures I briefly mention above, and not whether the blogger's views were palatable. Unfortunately Retief has compounded the problem and it stands to reason that his decision must be appealed.

I have no doubt that many are genuinely aggrieved by the blog and the Huffington Post's decision to publish it, but the very basis of their taking offense must be debated.

Pillay's resignation must be for the right reasons, and that is failure of editorial process at the very beginning of their engagement with the fake blogger, and not for the purposes of putting the fear of God into any editor who dares allow views certain sectors of society may not like. That is not what editors are supposed to do.

I also hope that the Huffington Post and News24 put their decision to accept Pillay's resignation in perspective. They need to demonstrate clearly the principle upon which they have done so, and that they did not cave in to outrage which may serve to undermine very critical debate and democratic principles relating to free speech.

Songezo Zibi is an author and former editor of the Business Day.