Online commentary by users of news sites is in the interests of freedom of expression, but must be tempered with the rights of readers and the public as laid out in the Constitution, an advisory panel appointed by Independent Media has found. The Media online reports.
Chairman of Independent Media, Dr Iqbal Survé, appointed the six-person panel late last year after a young writer of a story posted on the group’s news site, IOL, was subjected to a stream of abuse by certain readers. In a statement issued after the handover of the findings, Survé said technology and new media had “redefined the way we have to look at and monitor weighty issues in our society such as freedom of speech and the balancing of various rights, such as the right to speak our minds vis-à-vis protection from hate speech”.
The panel comprised media lawyers Jacques Louw (chair of the panel) and Dario Milo; public advocate at the Press Council, Latiefa Mobara; political analyst, lecturer and columnist, Eusebius McKaiser; and Karima Brown and Anthony Robinson, Independent’s group executive editor and chief technology officer respectively.
Louw, in his introduction to the report, said freedom of the internet is a right protected under the Constitution, but that it has also created an environment where information is sent and received in seconds. And if something goes viral, it can’t be stopped. “It is this environment that Independent Media’s internet publisher, IOL, found a conundrum. As a publisher, what does it do with the comment sections under its news articles? How does it apply the constitutional right to freedom of expression when it potentially impacts on other rights?”
The scope of the panel, which Louw said was constrained by limited time and resources, was to look into the prevalence of hate speech, personal attacks and defamatory statement by the public on its news sites.
They found IOL comment sections to have “an unacceptable high content of hatred, racist speech and unlawful speech”. In fact, Milo and said if Independent Media couldn’t effectively pre-moderate comments, the sections should be closed down. They recommend, however, that Independent uses professionally trained staff to moderate comments, and also introduce a robust post-publication model that would ensure commentary fitted in with its guidelines.
In a nutshell, the panel found:
- In the interests of freedom of expression, it is desirable to host online comments
- However, the constitutional rights of readers and members of the public should not be infringed by such comments
- It would be preferable to moderate comments prior to their publication online
- Online platforms should be staffed with suitably qualified personnel
- If effective pre-moderation cannot be undertaken for any particular reason, Independent should consider closing its comments section
- Independent Media should develop guidelines to define unacceptable speech, which take into account legal and ethical considerations, but should not amount to censorship of differing viewpoints
The panel canvassed the views of different media organisations and individuals such as Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), Dr Julie Reid, Keith Gottschalk, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), and Section16. Most said it was extremely important that news websites allow user-generated comment. FXI said media owners should have a clear self-regulation policy in place and that user comments enhanced the relationship between journalists and the public while also allowing readers to comment on issues that affect them.
The MMA said reader commentary in real time was one of the major benefits of digital platforms and that it also allowed website owners to understand their audiences better and track their perspectives on issues. But it said comments should be moderated through a prism of ethics and the law.
Section 16 said news sites had an “obligation” to allow user-generated content as it enhanced the right of freedom of expression. It said pre-moderation of comments was tantamount to pre-publication censorship, and that in terms of liability, harmful content is “not at the sole risk of the website owner” but was a joint process between the content creator, the platform creator, the internet service provider and the search engine.
Gottschalk said the same norms of etiquette and protocol that applies to print media should apply to online media too. He believes users should not be allowed to hide behind anonymity, and that real names should be used.
Reid said she doesn’t believe comments should be removed even after complaints from the public and that moderation should be kept to a minimum and only be used in the most extreme and exceptional circumstances.. She said in news sites don’t offer readers the space to discuss issues, they will simply take their conversation elsewhere, such as on to social media platforms.
“The debates on the panel were invigorating and demonstrated how seriously everybody took this task. It is up to Independent to take this further and the report definitely provides a sound basis from which to move forward. We view this is as the beginning of a conversation and are hopeful that it will serve as a catalyst to further engagement in the industry,” Surve said after receiving the report and recommendations.
He said because it was in the public interest, it would be made available to the public, including other media houses, civil society organisations and the public sector. ”With my management team, I shall be studying the recommendations and will advise on our approach and implementation, which should be holistic, in the next while,” he said.
Read the full report here: Report Independent Advisory Panel Feb 2015 (final) copy
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