Twitter Wars & the Hate Speech Bill

By Verlie Oosthuizen, Head of Social Media Law

Magda Wierzycka, the outspoken CEO of Sygnia, has never been afraid of stating her opinion on Twitter. She is also not afraid of protecting her rights when she feels that they have been infringed.  We saw this last year when she approached the court for relief when Mzwanele Manyi (the owner of ANN7) tweeted defamatory statements about her online. However, over the weekend she found herself at the centre of a “twitter war” (“twar”) when one of her tweets was regarded as offensive and the Twitterverse seemingly turned against her.  She later apologised for the offence that her comment had caused and offered to give R200,000 to any organisation that approached her with a job creation scheme that could really benefit people in South Africa.

It is important to think about what happened with this example in the context of the new Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill which has been approved by cabinet for consideration by parliament.  In terms of this new Bill, the criminalisation of hate speech is introduced into our law which has far reaching consequences.  The prohibition of hate speech is written into our constitution however it has a very narrow definition.  The new Bill widens the scope of hate speech dramatically and sets out approximately 17 prohibited grounds of discrimination (increased from 4 in the Constitution).  It also widens the nature of the speech dramatically and all that needs to be shown is that the speech is insulting to a particular person or group of people on a prohibited ground.  A criminal sanction of 3 to 10 years imprisonment could be awaiting the perpetrator of this type of speech.  An important part of proving the crime will be whether the perpetrator had the intention of insulting the person or group of people on the prohibited ground or not.  The backlash to Magda’s comment certainly displayed instances where the “tweeps” were intending to insult her.

A very important question that South Africans need to consider is whether we want to have the government deciding what speech we can use and criminalise utterances as widely as suggested in the Bill.  While some people may argue that we need the state to protect us from people who make discriminatory statements it can lead to all sorts of scary consequences that will have a real effect of freedom of expression and press freedom. It may be a slippery slope.

For more information on the above contact:

Verlie Oosthuizen,

+27 31 575 7206

voosthuizen@wylie.co.za