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You are only responsible once you are aware – law expert

Mpho Koka Journalist
FILE PHOTO: Group admins can now delete harmful messages.
FILE PHOTO: Group admins can now delete harmful messages.
Image: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Social media law expert Emma Sadleir says administrators of WhatsApp groups can be held legally responsible for not deleting harmful content posted by group members.

Sadleir was speaking to Sowetan on what legal obligations group administrators have on handling incidents of hate speech as illustrated by the case of Belinda Magor's racist voice note shared on a WhatsApp group.

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“The law in South Africa says if you have the ability to stop something from being published and you choose not to then you become legally responsible for that content. If you post something on my Facebook page, I become legally responsible for it because I could delete it but I choose not to.

"You cannot be expected to know beforehand as the administrator of the group that the group is going to be abused. The legal principle according to case law is simple, you are only responsible once you are aware of it.''

Upon notification of the message, the WhatsApp group administrator where Magor's voice note was shared, Adrian Grewar, said he wanted to listen to the message but found out that it had already been deleted. Grewar removed Magor from the group and reported the matter to the police. 

Sadleir said due to a recent addition of a feature on WhatsApp, group admins were now able to delete messages posted by other members of the group.

“Before, only the person who sent the message could delete it, but now group admins can delete people’s messages,” said Sadleir, adding  that the safest way of handling groups for admin is was to allow only for admins to send messages.

“If it is a group where everyone sends messages, then the administrator should develop important guidelines on what is acceptable on the group.’’

Sadleir said group admins were not obligated to open cases when harmful content was shared on a group. However, she said they were obligated to report to the police when child pornography was shared. 


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