The Johannesburg High Court ruled that opposition politician Julius Malema and his political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, had breached the country’s Electoral Code of Conduct by doxxing veteran journalist Karima Brown, according to a copy of the judgment seen by the Committee to Protect Journalists and news reports.
The case stemmed from an incident in March in which Malema published Brown’s personal contact information on Twitter, leading to an onslaught of graphic messages on social media as well as on her phone through voice and WhatsApp messages, many threatening rape and murder, as CPJ reported at the time.
According to the court judgment, Judge Fiona Dippenaar ruled that Malema and the EFF had contravened the Electoral Code of Conduct, including item 8 (c), under which “every registered political party and candidate must take all reasonable steps to ensure that journalists are not subjected to harassment, intimidation, hazard, threat or physical assault by any of their representatives or supporters.”
“Today’s court ruling in the Karima Brown case sets an important precedent that politicians cannot escape the consequences of their actions on social media and that they must be held accountable when their followers abuse and threaten journalists, particularly female journalists, said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal. “It is a welcome step in trying to combat cyberbullying, trolling, and online harassment in what has become an increasingly toxic and dangerous space for journalists, not only in South Africa but around the world.”
The judge found that Malema and the EFF had failed to “instruct and take reasonable steps to ensure that their supporters do not harass, intimidate, threaten and abuse journalists, especially women.” Dippenaar added, “The respondents’ previous conduct cannot be countenanced which has had the effect of jeopardizing free and fair elections by fostering a chilling effect on robust media reporting.”
According to the judgment, Dippenaar issued a formal warning under Section 96 (2) of the Electoral Act to Malema and the EFF and ordered them to pay Brown’s legal costs, saying their conduct must be severely criticized and “the supine attitude they adopted to their obligations condemned.”
However, she stopped short of fining Malema and the EFF R100,000 (US$6,670) as requested by Brown, or ordering Malema to publicly apologize to Brown from his Twitter account
The judge said that in considering an appropriate sanction she had also taken into account Brown’s role in triggering the chain of events, saying the “strident and political tone” adopted by the journalist in her responses to the EFF on social media “fueled the flames of discord” and that her provocative stance constituted a “weighty mitigating” factor in determining an appropriate action.
Brown told CPJ that the court’s ruling was “a victory for democracy and media freedom, and a blow against misogyny and toxic masculinity.”
In a one-line statement, the EFF said it welcomed the court judgment and would comply.