Jon Qwelane's column offensive but freedom of the press still important‚ court hears

Jon Qwelane
Jon Qwelane

Though former journalist and ambassador to Uganda Jon Qwelane’s column titled‚ “Call me names‚ but Gay is NOT okay‚” was offensive‚ the laws that protect his freedom of expression must remain intact.

That’s according to Sunday Sun deputy editor Ben Viljoen‚ who was called to testify by Qwelane’s legal team before the Johannesburg High Court on Wednesday.

The South African Human Rights Commission is the applicant in the case against Qwelane‚ after he failed to apologise for the 2008 Sunday Sun column.

In the column‚ Qwelane suggested that the Constitution’s acceptance of gay marriage would lead to “some idiot [demanding] to marry an animal“. He also endorsed Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s views on homosexuality.

Viljoen said that Qwelane did not see the column’s headline or the accompanying cartoon – of a man marrying a goat – before its publication‚ and that ultimately it was the newspaper which was responsible for the publication.

“Mr Qwelane like any journalist simply puts forth a piece of writing. We get dozens of other pieces everyday that are not used. If we were unhappy we would have asked him to resubmit‚” he said.

Media24 apologised for the offensive publication after it was ordered to do so by the Press Council of South Africa.

Viljoen said that this apology was meaningless and unsatisfactory because it only dealt with certain parts of the column.

He said‚ however‚ that despite the hurtful nature of the column it should not be used as a tool to muzzle the press.

When asked by advocate Musatondwa Musandiwa whether he agreed with a response to Qwelane’s column‚ defending Qwelane’s right to freedom of expression‚ Viljoen agreed that freedom of expression and the press was paramount.

If this was not ensured‚ “It would mean‚ my Lord‚ a kind of self-censorship. One needs to ask‚ ‘who is hurt?’ In this case it was the LGBTI community. It can happen that someone hurt by this is a politician accused of corruption‚” he said.

The court also heard from University of South Africa Psychology Professor Juan Nel‚ called as a witness by the Psychological Society of South Africa‚ which joined the case as friend of the court.

Nel’s research has dealt with the experiences of members of the LGBTI community and is a founding member of the Hate Crimes Working Group.

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