In “robust talks” at ANC headquarters at Luthuli House in Johannesburg, media editors and the ruling party butted heads over the media appeals tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill and relationships. They did agree on a way forward marked by mutual discussion, though how that’d happen is still up in the air. By MANDY DE WAAL.
It was the first time the ANC had met with the South African National Editor’s Forum in more than two years, despite the forum’s repeated requests for a meeting. Together with the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman, editors and the ANC engaged in discussions that the congress called “tense”. What’s important is that despite disagreements, neither side minced words (and the ANC complaining about a lack of diplomacy), both sides described the meeting as “positive, useful and constructive to forging a way forward”.
“It was robust and certainly very useful. Remember it was the first meeting we’ve had with the ANC since 2008,” said Sanef deputy chairwoman Mary Papayya. Two years ago Sanef met with then-president Kgalema Mothlante, Pallo Jordan and Jessie Duarte to table concerns with the media appeals tribunal that had been mooted at the landmark ANC conference in Polokwane in 2007.
Asked why it had taken so long for the media to meet with the ANC against a background of deteriorating relations, Papayya said: “We had asked. After our 2008 meeting we invited the president to our AGM and then invited the minister of justice to our following AGM. The sense I get is that 2010 did dominate. I don’t think we must read anything into it,” she said.
However, it was a burning issue for ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu. “If we had started with this conversation earlier, as robust as it was, it would have been far better for South Africa. Our relations would not be as low as they are. If we started from this angle of just getting to understand where the ANC comes from, and where does the media come from, and why do they think that no one should interfere with their self-regulatory environment. If we appraised ourselves of these issues instead of throwing insults at each other, saying that the ANC’s only desire is to protect its corrupt deployees, is to muzzle the media.” Mthembu added, “As South Africans we are hard on ourselves instead of understanding each other and were we come from. We start with insulting each other because we think we know where people are going.”
The meeting was held to discuss the appeals tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill and the deteriorating relationship between the ANC and the media, and on these both parties mostly disagreed.
The ANC feels the Protection of Information Bill is crucial to national security and to protect the country from becoming what Mthembu calls “a playground for foreign intelligence”. The media agrees that the ANC has the right to protect its sovereignty, but that the bill is riddled with clauses that are an infraction on media freedoms and the right to access to information.
“We are not against issues related to internal security. That is the government’s prerogative. We are against the bill in its current form. I think that is the feeling of everyone who has commented on the bill, they are saying that in its current form there are problems and the government must address those aspects that pertain to the infractions of media freedom,” said Papayya.
“There is no country that would like to be a playground for foreign intelligence. That is the intention. We wouldn’t like any people in our country to be used as sources of foreign intelligence to undermine the integrity and the constitutionality of our country. That is the ANC’s view. There might be some clauses in that bill that might be unfortunate, and those we have to look at,” said Mthembu. His view was that the bill should run its course in Parliament and that those aspects of the bill that were unconstitutional would be expunged.
A key issue for the ANC was the tribunal and what Mthembu saw as the media’s failure to regulate itself. “The ANC didn’t mince its words when it defended the need for an appeals tribunal in terms of the defects that both the media and Sanef agreed to in relation to the self regulatory environment. This relates to the Press Ombudsman, the Press Council, its composition, its powers of sanctions and the time it takes to deal with issues. Also its inability to force print houses to do what it has found they must do and the inability to force censure on the media.”
Mthembu said the ANC no longer took concerns to the self-regulatory system because of what he described as its failure. “Of course, the ANC said that there were many, many violations of its own that have happened from the side of the media that it has not taken to the Press Council because it just doesn’t feel that it is worth doing so. It is not effective, and that is why many of its complaints have not landed with the ombudsman because it feels the ombudsman is not an appropriate forum.”
Pappaya presented a different perspective, saying the discussion was not about an outright failure of a self-regulatory system, but rather about gaps in the system that were being aggressively addressed. “There was agreement that there were gaps and that (the system) needed to be strengthened. We particularly addressed aspects related to these inadequacies and that we were totally committed to strengthening the current system. We really believe self-regulation is good for our Constitution, it protects media freedom, it is good for our democracy and we will look at strengthening this system.”
What’s evident is that there’s a huge chasm between the ANC and the media, but that the conversation has begun and both parties agree discussions must be continued. Let’s hope for the sake of our freedoms and for the rights enshrined in our Constitution that they do. DM
Read more: “Editors, ANC in ‘robust’ talks over media tribunal” in Mail & Guardian.
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