By Lynnette Johns

There is outrage at the firing of Rapport columnist Deon Maas whose column on satanism and religious tolerance prompted furious readers to organise a boycott of the newspaper.

The Freedom of Expression Institute has slammed Rapport for its stance, saying the decision to fire Maas just two weeks after it had hired him to great fanfare, was "typical" of the media placing commercial interests above journalists' freedom of opinion and conscience.

And the Press Council of South Africa said: "That an editor can sanction a journalist in favour of 'commercial interest' is shocking."

Maas, a controversial columnist whose work has appeared in Die Burger and Beeld, was fired by Rapport's editor Tim du Plessis on Thursday, after his first column was published under the headline "666 is net 'n syfer" (666 is just a number).

More than a week after it was published, an SMS campaign, apparently orchestrated by Christian groups, did the rounds saying: "Boycott Rapport because Deon Maas is writing a pro-satanism story."

But Maas said the piece was rather about tolerance and accepting other people's views.

Simon Delaney of the Freedom of Expression Institute said: "Whether it was satire or not, we can say what we like as long as it is not hate speech. We should be able to publish and be damned unless we break the law. Deon Maas's article is not illegal. The newspaper is not even interested in supporting his right of freedom of expression.

"Rapport has answered the question as to whether freedom of expression or commercial interest is paramount."

Delaney said the paper was betraying its ethics and raison d'etre by bowing to a percentage of readers who had threatened to boycott the newspaper.

"There was no evidence that the majority of readers would stop buying Rapport if Maas continued to write. Rapport has sold its soul for the sake of pleasing a few readers."

According to Friday's Die Burger, distributors were refusing to deliver the paper and a number of rural shops were refusing to sell it if Maas remained on the payroll.

In a statement, the paper's editor Du Plessis said they had fired Maas after the SMS campaign had brought the commercial interests of the paper under threat.

"Rapport is committed to press freedom, the expression of opinion and robust debate. The orchestrated boycott campaign had however changed the nature of the issue from one of freedom of expression to commercial interest," he said.

In a radio interview on Cape Talk on Thursday, Du Plessis admitted he had read the column before it was published and had shown it to several other senior people at the newspaper and had decided to go ahead.

He said the campaign had hit him "like a train", which he had not seen coming.

The campaign started eight days after the column appeared.

Maas said on Friday he had never been fired before, and even though he did not agree with his dismissal, as a businessman he understood it.

The nature of his writing meant people loved or hated him and often they would hate him one week and love him the next - when he wrote something they agreed with.

On his religious views, he said: "I don't subscribe to formal religion, and I am not a satanist. The one thing I will do is to stand up for what I believe in.

"Everybody is entitled to their opinion as long as they can back it up.

"Opinion should be informed and should be respected, even if you do not agree with it."

His column for this week would have been on "the ANC is committing economic genocide against the Afrikaners".

Maas started as a journalist and went on to work in the music industry. He was a judge on Afrikaans Idols, is a radio host and owns a communications company in Johannesburg.

Rapport's decision was described as "shocking" by Bewyn Petersen, vice-chairman of the Press Council of South Africa. In a statement Petersen said: "A good journalist reports the news of the day accurately, and imparts opinion in a fair and balanced manner.

"He should create debate in society around issues which are of public interest, and ensure that the general public is kept informed of such issues as he may feel is important.

"Surely Mr Maas acted in terms of his constitutional right, and indeed in terms of his obligation to society?

"He has stirred debate, and as such, has done his job.

"Quoting Voltaire: 'I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'."

Jovial Rantao, chairman of the South African National Editors Forum, speaking from Germany, said the matter between Maas and Rapport was not an issue the organisation would comment on.