This follows many months of robust discussion and debates based on the recommendations made by the Advisory Panel established by Independent Media in September last year to look into the matter of online abuse, hate speech, personal attacks and defamatory statements on the company's online platforms.
"The desire to foster and promote democracy and the rights enshrined in our Constitution can never be compromised. Racism, sexism, hatred, bigotry and anything which counters our hard-fought democracy will not be tolerated on our platforms", said executive chairman of Independent Media, Dr Iqbal Survé.
While Independent Media had given itself until the end of the year to make a final decision, the escalation in abuse on its online platforms along with several cases of defamatory attacks on readers, have encouraged the company to reach a decision sooner than expected.
Independent Media is clear about the fine balance between rights and responsibilities that characterise South Africa's democracy. The company will continue to encourage engagement around topics by providing opportunities for readers to comment on and participate in discussions in an environment and manner which foster tolerance, respect and dignity.
According to Adrian Ephraim, the managing editor of IOL (Independent Online), one of the country's largest online news websites, the decision to close down its comments section was not taken lightly. Readers, however, will not be completely shut out. Instead, IOL readers will be given the opportunity to make meaningful contributions and give opinions where these are believed to be conducive to healthy debate. "We need to promote the deliberation of ideas between individuals and communities. We will pre-moderate and publish opinion on selected stories, provided they relate to the subject at hand", said Ephraim. He added that opinions published would be at the discretion of the IOL editorial team.
The Advisory Panel established by Independent Media in September 2014 included media attorneys Jacques Louw and Dario Milo, Public Advocate at the Press Council, Latiefa Mobara, political analyst Eusebius McKaiser, Independent Group Content Officer, Karima Brown and its Chief Digital and Technology officer, Anthony Robinson.
The main finding and recommendations of the Advisory Panel were:
- 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
Therefore having taken all the recommendations of the advisory panel, as well as the debates and discussion that followed, Independent has decided to close its online comment section in order to best serve our readers.