An important case testing the right to freedom of speech is set to be heard in court soon. It involves lions, President Jacob Zuma and one of the biggest media companies in the country. TheMediaOnline’s reporter looked into the matter.
It all started in June this year, when non-governmental organisation Avaaz, which campaigns for a ban in the trade of lion bones, created a controversial poster to promote its cause. In the right hand corner featured a picture of Zuma; in the left hand corner; a close-up of a gun, pointing at the head of a lion. Underneath the gun, appeared the phrase that caused all the trouble: “President Zuma can save her life”.
It further stated: “Our lions are being slaughtered to make bogus sex potions for Asia. Will President Zuma save them? Urge him to stop the deadly trade now.”
The posters went up on display on the walls of OR Tambo International Airport, at the arrivals hall, for all tourists to see. Avaaz had planned to keep the adverts up for a month, but after a week, their placards were summarily stripped off the walls.
The advertising space for Avaaz had been bought from Primedia’s outdoor advertising arm, Primedia Outdoor. At the time, Primedia’s outdoor sales and marketing executive, Peter Lindstrom, told the Independent Online that Primedia had been instructed by the Airports Company of SA (Acsa) to remove the posters, because they were offensive.
He told IOL that Primedia had complied with regret.
Acsa has a contract with Primedia to manage the airport’s advertising spaces.
Earlier this month, Avaaz issued a media statement saying it had decided to take the case to the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
“Primedia has chosen not to defend the decision to censor the voices of 700 000 voices world citizens calling for the protection of South Africa’s last remaining wild lions, likely because it knows there is no legal defence.”
This was according to Emma Ruby-Sachs, campaign director for Avaaz. “This makes it all the more remarkable that Acsa is still digging in its heels to prevent legitimate public discussion.”
Avaaz will demand in court that the adverts be reinstated.
“The lawsuit claims that by censoring the ads, Primedia and Acsa violated Avaaz’s right to freedom of expression under the South African Consitution.
“The ads had been pre-approved by Primedia and hung in the international Arrivals Hall at OR Tambo for more than a week before Acsa noticed the ads and ordered them removed out of fears of a ‘public relations nightmare’,” said Ruby-Sachs.
Last week, Primedia reacted to Avaaz’s claim that the media company had decided not to oppose the lawsuit “because it knows there is no legal defence”.
“Primedia has noted the press release that was published by Avaaz regarding the pending dispute surrounding the display of the Lion Ads at OR Tambo, which unfortunately appears to be inaccurate in various aspects,” said Primedia group commercial executive, Geraint Crwys-Williams.
“Primedia’s decision not to oppose the lawsuit… was not taken ‘because it knows there is no legal defence’ as the press release of Avaaz suggests,” said Crwys-Williams.
“Primedia’s decision was based purely on legal advice that the company obtained, and not on any emotional grounds, issues of morality or subjective judgment.”
He said Primedia had a “binding, contractual relationship with Acsa”, and “as is usual in landlord/tenant relationships such as this, Primedia has to comply with the terms and conditions of the contract since ultimately the advertising platforms belong to Acsa.”
Crwys-Williams said Primedia had filed an affidavit in which it explained its legal position.
“Primedia has indicated that we will abide by whatever decision the court comes to regarding the dispute between Avaaz and Acsa.”
Avaaz’s aim with the campaign was to collect one million signatures for a petition to put pressure on the South African government to stop lion bone trade.
Avaaz said the court was expected to hear its case in the coming weeks.