JAMIE MCKANE – MYBROADBAND
Discovery Health has fired 10 employees over the content of messages they sent in a WhatsApp group during the COVID-19 lockdown.
This is according to a report by the Sunday Times, which said the employees started the group to support each other after contracting COVID-19 in April.
The employees complained to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration (CCMA) about their dismissal, arguing that they were unfairly dismissed and demanding 12 months’ salary from the company as compensation.
They reportedly accused the company of unhealthy labour practices and invading their privacy.
Discovery Health CEO Ryan Noach said one of the members of the WhatsApp group shared the content of the conversations, which included planning and initiating efforts to maliciously shut down the company.
In its letter to one of the affected workers, Discovery Health said the employee had “shared information and messages that were clearly prejudicial to and derogatory of the company” and accused them of making false and damaging statements about the company to an external party and attempting to organise a shutdown of Discovery offices in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.
“Our expectations are that staff raise concerns internally, affording us the opportunity to clarify or resolve any items that may give cause to whatever concerns they may have,” Noach said.
“The evidence that we have in our possession illustrates that this group failed to take up opportunities to raise specific concerns internally and instead chose to act maliciously and unfairly in an attempt to achieve their nefarious end of an office closure by bringing the company into disrepute.”
This is not the first time South Africans have faced significant consequences for messages shared with a group via WhatsApp.
Last year, Adam Catzavelos faced criminal charges and was fined R50,000 for posting a video containing a racial slur to a WhatsApp group.
The video was shared with a group of his friends, one of whom posted it online – an act which caused Catzavelos to be publicly shamed for his comments and ultimately appear in court over his statements.
Private vs group messages
The legal issues related to WhatsApp messages are often concerned with defamation and how South African law views defamatory statements made in a private group.
Boutique law firm VDS Inc previously told MyBroadband that if you send a WhatsApp message to a single person, you cannot attract liability for defamation.
However, if the person who received the message decides to publish it, they can be held liable – even if they were not the author.
If you send a message to a WhatsApp group and it is leaked to external third parties, however, the author and the person who leaked the message can be held liable.
Users should also ensure they remove any defamatory statements posted on their social media profile or in a WhatsApp group they control or they could also face responsibility for perpetuating a defamatory statement.
The Cybercrimes Bill, which focuses on criminalising the theft and interference of data, was recently adopted by Parliament’s Select Committee on Security and Justice.
This Bill’s purview includes criminalising the distribution of harmful data messages, imposing obligations to report cybercrime, and creating offences which have a bearing on cybercrime.
It brings a number of changes to the way messages sent over platforms such as WhatsApp are treated and includes steep consequences for infringement.
A previous version of the bill stated that a person who sends any of the below will be liable to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years:
- A message which incites damage to property or violence
- A message which threatens persons with damage to property or violence
- A message which unlawfully contains an intimate image.
The committee said it had agreed to a number of amendments to the bill, a number of which would focus specifically on the disclosure of private messages made through platforms such as WhatsApp.