Earlier this week, the gullible Huffington Post published, defended, and later retracted an article in its South African edition, calling for white men to lose the right to vote. The post was revealed to be a Sokal Affair-like hoax, written with the intention of outing the publication’s political bias. HuffPost South Africa reporters wasted no time in uncovering the author of the piece and confronted him at his place of work, and he was forced to resign.
And now Huffington Post SA editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay resigned this weekend following an investigation into the controversial article and a severe ruling by South Africa’s press ombudsman.
The CEO of Media24, which operates HuffPost in South Africa, issued a statement calling the article’s publication “hugely damaging” to their reputation.
“Responsible journalism is at the heart of what we do; it’s the currency we trade in,” said Media24 CEO Esmaré Weideman. “In an era of fake news, I know only too well that our editors spend an inordinate amount of time checking the veracity of information before they publish. When our systems fail, we’re not just alarmed; we’re outraged. This is a sad day for journalism.”
Andreij Horn, the head of News24.com, announced that they were accepting Pillay’s resignation and announced that the company will be making changes to editorial management to “address the internal issues that made the situation possible in the first place, and the impact it had on society at large, the company, and its staff.”
South African press ombudsman Johan Retief found that the controversial blog post was both discriminatory and constituted hate speech.
“Let me be short and sweet: If disenfranchisement of anybody (whether white males or black females for that matter) is not discriminatory‚ the meaning of discrimination should be redefined‚” wrote Retief in the 14-page finding. “Moreover, the reasons given for such a malicious suggestion certainly were denigratory.”
“I do not believe that this statement needs any further justification,” he added. “I do not believe for one moment that such discriminatory and denigratory opinions can be described as being in the public interest – especially given this country’s history of its struggle for liberation. To disenfranchise a section of the population once again would indeed represent a huge step backwards – one that may have some serious unforeseen consequences.”
The ombudsman said that the article’s contents breached a section of the press code, which forbids the publication of material that is “inflammatory, discriminatory, and targeting a specific group of people.”
Retief rebuked the publication for not verifying the article’s true author, who was actually 37-year-old Marius Roodt, who wrote under the pseudonym of feminist and student activist “Shelley Garland”.
The ombudsman also lambasted Pillay for her role in publishing the piece, and her subsequent defense of the article, in which she called the article’s discriminatory arguments “pretty standard for feminist theory.” Pillay later pulled the piece not because she disagreed with its content, but because doubts arose over the identity of its author.
“Let me be painfully clear about this: If it is Pillay’s belief that the gist of Garland’s article is correct, she is free to believe that and pursue her view – but then she must know that this is not possible within the confines of the code,” declared the ombudsman.