Think!Fest: Debating civil speech and hate speech

Photo: Jayne Mache

As part of the Think!fest Programme, a panel of media experts including Adriaan Basson, Mark Oppenheimer, Verashni Pillay and Thandi Smith sat down to debate the topics of civil speech and hate speech on 3 July.

Oppenheimer, a practicing advocate and member of the Johannesburg Bar, opened the debate by defining “hate speech” as an insult or form of incitement. He explained the difference between hate speech and hateful speech: using the recent case of Penny Sparrow as an example, he stated, “Penny Sparrow’s post was offensive and distasteful, but there was no incitement.”

Describing genuine hate speech as unprotected and a call for violent actions to be perpetrated against others, Oppenheimer added that the legislation of South Africa prohibits reporting hate speech. The introduction of the Hate Crimes and Hate Speech bill, however, differs in certain aspects to what the Constitution entails, namely free speech: the cornerstone of a democratic state, free speech exposes people to differing viewpoints so that they can make informed decisions. This raises the question as to how to report efficiently if they are prohibited from reporting hate speech.

Oppenheimer also argued that when it comes to documentations of history and religious books, despite containing material considered hate speech, they are helpful in terms of reminding us to not make the same mistakes. However, should the bill be implemented, this material will be made inaccessible and religious bodies will be affected.

Smith, the head of the Policy Unit at MMA (Media Monitoring Africa), raised the concern that the definitions of hate speech were too broad. She also emphasised the importance of protecting child participation in all policies.

Pillay, the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian and The Huffington Post South Africa, told the audience about resigning from the latter publication. Describing the experience as traumatic, Pillay gave a short summary of the events that led to her departure: a blog post titled “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” – purportedly written by an MA student attending the University of Cape Town – was published on the website’s Voices section on 13 April this year. Many readers regarded this post as a form of hate speech because it suggested that white men should be denied the right to vote. In response to the public outcry, Pillay although agreeing that no one should be stripped of their right to vote, commented that white men have disproportionate rights in South Africa and that it is important that citizen include the topics of racism and gender when talking about inequality in South Africa.

Later, it was revealed that the post was not in fact written by student, but by Marius Roodt, a white researcher at the Centre for Development and Enterprise. By writing the piece, he wanted to prove that The Huffington Post would publish any content considered radical.

Pillay stated that there were different interest groups that were pushing their own agendas in support of passing this bill. She argued that Oppenheimer should not minimise a wounded society to the law. She also questioned why Penny Sparrow’s Facebook post was not deemed as hate speech yet Roodt’s blog post. Pillay also used cartoonist Zapiro “another white man” – and his monkey cartoons as examples, explaining how incredibly triggering they are due to its racist connotations yet Zapiro has not been arrested for hate speech.

“How far does the bill go when it comes to hate speech?” she asked to round off her argument.

Basson, editor of News 24, said that it is clear that the drafting of the bill is a reaction to Penny Sparrow. He argued that people such as singer Steve Hofmeyr get away with racism because there is not enough severe punishment for those people.

“Even though Penny Sparrow did not explicitly say “Let’s kill black people”, that still came from a place of hatred” he said.

On the other hand, there is also the defense of censorship and public interest. The biggest question that now remains is how can journalists report on or censor racist or radical content efficiently.

By Hlumela Dyantyi