Criticism is a bitter pill to swallow, but people involved in the arts have to deal with it professionally. It should go without saying that resorting to threats of violence is unacceptable. But when Diane Coetzer criticised the Parlotones' recent show in a Daily Maverick review, Eban Olivier, whose company Catalyst Entertainment was involved in the production, flew off the handle on Facebook, posting comments threatening Coetzer and her family. As the situation has escalated, Coetzer is now suing Olivier for R150,000 in damages and an unconditional apology. It's set to be the first case in South Africa concerning defamation via a social network. By THERESA MALLINSON.
A couple of months ago, on 14 July, to be precise, journalist Diane Coetzer wrote a review of the Parlotones' Dragonflies & Astronauts production at Monte Casino for Daily Maverick. The subtitle of her article, “great music, lousy theatre”, pretty much sums up her take on the show.
In the review Coetzer referred to “amateur-hour choreography and dancing”, “costuming that fell abysmally short of promises that it would be 'another character in itself'”, and “the dancers'... miserable attempt to evoke a post-apocalyptic world with some of the lamest robotic dancing this side of YouTube funnies”. About the costumes, she wrote: “Actually, if anything, the get-ups most likely chosen by the production team at Catalyst Entertainment (no programme meant no clue as to who is actually responsible) made me feel faintly squeamish”.
Eban Olivier, of Catalyst Entertainment, was stung by this review, and on 25 July unleashed a torrent of abuse at Coetzer on his Facebook page. Much of this invective was hateful speech, rather than hate speech per se, but a couple of comments crossed the line, with threats of, and incitement to violence.
Under a photograph he'd posted of a truck, Olivier wrote: “ON A HAPPIER NOTE ….I am going to build something like this! Using my Subaru as a base for the chassis and HELL as the inspiration ….then I am going to drive over Diane with it!!! Build will start on Saturday!” And next to a photograph of Coetzer, which Oliver had uploaded to his Facebook profile, he wrote: “So after this bitch pissed me off to the end degree today I decided to put a snap shot of miss happy on facebook, so should you feel the need to walk past her and give her a PK [poes klap] you know who dish it out to!”
When mutual friends alerted Coetzer to Olivier's comments on Facebook, she was shocked and upset. “You know, writing for the Daily Maverick, which I had been doing on an ad hoc basis, any story, review, column that gets put up, there's space underneath for comments by users. So I'm kind of used it. The thing I wrote on Die Antwoord got quite a lot of personal comments, but they were still within boundaries. They were hard-hitting, but not intensely personal, and not frightening, like these were,” she told iMaverick. “When I went and had a look, it was shocking. I basically burst into tears. The first thing I saw was that photo he found of me and the request: 'This is what she looks like, if you see her, beat her up.' It was shocking; I was very upset. And of course, my family could see I was upset, and that's when my 12-year-old daughter came, and I didn't stop her from having a look, and she was very upset, about the comments against her as well.”
One of the comments stated: “This bitch must get hit by a fucking 18 wheeler...and then the 18 wheeler must hit her daughter – her husband and then DIE ANTWOORD”.
Coetzer said: “Everyone was shocked by the level of it. If he'd just said, 'fuck Diane Coetzer, what the fuck does she know, she's a bitch,' that's one thing. But it escalated over a period of hours. This is unacceptable behaviour. I wasn't the only person to review (the show), and I wasn't the only one to review it badly. There was nothing personal in it.”
Later on 25 July, Olivier removed many of his comments (although not all of them), and posted an apology in the form of a Facebook note. “In honesty.... I have taken it tooo far as I am so passionate as to what I do for a living... I did not decide to not print programs... I did not engineer the shortfall if any... I did not make the opening night a media evening as it was suppose to have been a rehearsal night. I did not ask for criticism aimed at my company but I did hope for objective crit from people like DIANE in the industry that my partner and I respected. She was not even open to calling us to our 5 cents worth. We can take criticism, but her crit was a personal attack for some reasons, I obviously think – for the literal people out there – I offended her and her family – I apologise for that – it was unnecessary..... It was more an Arri Gold moment. I am just sooooo sick and tired of sideline coaches in this country that can always do something better yet they are not able to organise a piss up in a brewery! So call me an arsehole etc. But I put my bloody heart and soul into this project – if someone want do DISS and not Critt – then I can not help to stay vocal about it!”
For Coetzer, this just wasn't good enough, especially as some of the offensive comments, including the one about driving over her, were still up on Olivier's Facebook page, and removed only on 15 August. (Olivier has subsequently removed his entire profile.) “I forwarded (the comments) to my lawyer. It was really when he saw the the threats to me and my daughter that he said it was completely out of order. So we asked Olivier for an apology. We emailed it to him, and he came back – well his lawyer came back – and said he'd taken the stuff down,” said Coetzer. “On 29 July, we sent a letter, saying please apologise in the manner of which you spread it around, ie on your Facebook page, which was an open one, not a private one. Already we asked for some damages.”
A back-and-forth exchange of letters between the two sets of lawyers ensued, with Olivier's lawyers referring to the apology he had already published on his Facebook page. “I don't consider that an apology to me or a full retraction, because he half apologises, and then goes into slating me again,” Coetzee said. She has now issued a summons to Olivier, citing defamation and/or injury to her dignity and reputation, and claiming R150,000 in damages; as well as requesting that he publish an unconditional apology to each of the people listed as his friends on Facebook during the period the comments remained up. Olivier's lawyers responded to the summons on Thursday morning, indicating his intention to defend the case. A previous letter stated: “Any action will be defended and the appropriate counter claim instituted”.
Olivier, for his part, told iMaverick: “First and foremost, I'm the most chillest, relaxed human being on earth. What Diane has written in that article on a public platform, about our company, was a complete lash out. There's so much emotion in this issue, and I apologised in my own capacity on the same day when I was asked for it.
“It's funny how the apology is never talked about. Everybody gets an idiot moment in life where you really go all out and say 'go to hell!' Are you going to sue your child every time they say, 'I hate you so much, I want you to die'? I've apologised. I'm an adult. I apologised publicly the same night. I did it out of my own consent. I'm really sorry.”
Olivier was advised by his counsel not to answer further questions we sent him, but he did respond with the following three points, stating:
- I apologise for what was said;
- I had no violent intent; and
- I still do not understand why Diane had to rip us apart on this one aspect of a much bigger picture. The theatre show was an element in the 3D streaming worldwide. This event opened up the door for South African artists to be exposed in areas never imagined in the past, and is already creating extra growth and revenue from abroad in the film and commercials market.
But although Olivier repeatedly referred to his “closed Facebook community” in a brief conversation with iMaverick, his profile was accessible to anyone with a Facebook account, meaning that his statements had the potential to be read by people far beyond his immediate circle of friends. If we consider the comment that incited violence, inviting people to give Diane a “PK”, Olivier could not control how people would react to it – whether his own intentions were violent or not.
“We think we've got a pretty sound case, if I can put it that way,” said Coetzer's lawyer, Cleo Artemides of Christelis Artemides Attorneys. “It's really the simple intention to defame her, and the publication thereof, and the failure to apologise, and, that notwithstanding demands, the consistent publications after demands.”
Faber Goërtz Ellis, the law firm acting for Olivier, submitted his intention to defend the charges on Thursday morning, and now has 20 court days to submit the reasons for defence. Gavin Goërtz told iMaverick in an email: “I will not comment on the matter as the matter is the subject of existing litigation. Please refrain from further contacting me.”
If the case does go before a judge, rather than being settled out of court, it will set a precedent, whatever the final ruling. Although there have been a plethora of defamation cases in South Africa recently – with some being taken to court, and others debated in the court of public opinion – this would be the first one involving a social media network. “In South Africa I don't think we have a decided case on defamation by way of public disclosure through the social network media,” Artemides said. “Although there are comments on it, I don't think that there has been a decided case on it.”
Coetzer, meanwhile, strongly defends her right to write what she likes in her reviews. “It was a review, it is opinion. As journalists should we be scared to write what we feel about a production, because this kind of episode could happen? Are we now living in a time where we write a review, and someone can use their Facebook page to lash out in a deeply worrying way? To me there was a level of hate speech in what he said, and I think we need to take a stand against that,” she said. “I don't mind having critical comments under something I've written, if it's moderated, so that death threats are filtered out. That allows for reasonable comments that defend (Olivier's) production, or put his point of view across. The fact that he can just shrug it off shows that he has no sense of the kind of hurt, damage, anxiety and worry that he caused me and family.”
And the Parlotones – the band whose show unwittingly provided the catalyst for Coetzer and Olivier's skirmish – has a firm position on Olivier's Facebook comments. “We in no way share or support what Eban said, and in fact asked him to remove it,” frontman Kahn Morbee told iMaverick. “We're saddened about his reaction to criticism and the fact that this negativity even warrants a story. We are not newcomers to the world of critique and even with the truckloads we've received, we have never and will never react in the manner in which he did.
“We personally sent Diane a message on discovering the comments and expressed our separation from the comments, and let her know that despite the critique, we felt no ill feelings and were very upset by Eban's comments and respect her as a journalist,” Morbee continued. “We're well aware that in show business there will be cheers and jeers; we tend to listen to the cheers and only momentarily focus on the jeers if something can be learnt from the critique (not vendettas).” Morbee would not be drawn for comment on whether the Parlotones would work with Olivier again, but did say: “I think what he did was wrong, but to condemn someone forever would also be wrong”.
That this situation has gone as far as it has is regrettable, if understandable. The irony is that Olivier has ended up damaging his own reputation much more than Coetzer ever did. Our advice to him? Publish a proper apology, one that doesn't include a “but”; try to settle out of court; and take on some pro bono work for a good cause to repair his credibility. While a proper court case would be interesting in terms of setting precedent, Olivier has very little to gain from it. DM