The first of the Press Council hearings was held at Wits University in Johannesburg on Thursday. This kicks off a nationwide series of hearings the South African Press Council is undergoing in response to the ANC’s call for a statutory media appeals tribunal. Many are hoping this review process will nullify the calls for a tribunal from the ruling party.
Media Monitoring Africa made a comprehensive presentation with a number of suggestions for improving the Press Code. Of these the most affronting was its view that the Press Code should improve its provisions for the representation of children in the press. Two children, who took part in a project facilitated by the MMA and were asked to monitor and comment on the representation of children in the press, spoke as part of the presentation. They eloquently delivered a set of requested amendments to the Code to protect the rights and dignity of children in the media.
MMA’s Prinola Govenden made it clear that, although she felt the process of self-regulation of the press could be improved, she in no way felt that the ANC’s proposal of a media appeals tribunal was the answer. According to Govenden, the ANC’s position to improve the quality of journalism is to clamp down on the freedom of the press, which amounts to an affront on the Constitution. If the Press Council could instead clamp down on poor reporting, there would be no need to limit press freedom, she said.
The Council has already received a number of written submissions, including one from the MMA, containing suggestions on how to improve its code and complaints procedure. The purpose of the countrywide hearings is to engage with the general public and give them an opportunity to voice their concerns. Disappointingly, day one of the hearings had poor public attendance and the room was filled mostly with journalists, academics and representatives from MMA. The Press Council advertised the hearings widely and was at a loss to explain the apparent apathy of the public.
Regardless of the robust and constructive debate, there are already signs the Press Council’s review process is unlikely to deter the ANC from taking the notion of a media appeals tribunal to Parliament. Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe emphatically stated that, “We are not doing this to appease the ANC”. You have to hand it to the man: In the face of massive political pressure in the past months he has time and again stuck to his guns, and spoken boldly in favour of press self-regulation. But the fact remains, that whether or not the Press Council aims to appease the ANC, it seems to have been pushed into the loser’s corner by the ANC, even before it has thrown its first punch.
Thloloe is aware of this. During the public discussion session he revealed that all of the procedures and decisions of the review process are being carefully documented by the Press Council’s office, in case it needs them should it make a presentation to Parliament to stave off a tribunal. This comment is telling, because it reveals what until today many of us were unsure of, and that is that the Press Council is aware how precarious its current position actually is.
Let us not forget that the only reason the Press Council is reviewing is procedures in the first place is because of the ANC’s insistence on a statutory body to regulate the press. Apart from the public hearings to engage the public, the council has accepted a plethora of written submissions from various organisations containing suggestions on how to improve the current complaints procedure and the press code.
In this vein, we asked Thloloe whether the ANC had made a submission to the Press Council for consideration as part of the review process. Thloloe replied “We don’t know where we stand with government”. He revealed he had invited the ANC to be part of the review process, and it had replied wishing him well with the review and that the party hoped he would take some of its complaints into account. In short, the ANC has not made a submission to the Press Council.
It has been a reasonable hope the ANC, the chief and sole complainant thus far, would outline in detail what it feels is wrong with the current system of press self-regulation. But it failed to do so. Second, and as I warned in my column last week, without a clear set of criteria from the ANC, the Press Council is operating blind if it hopes, to consider the ANC’s concerns. This leaves a great deal of room for the ANC to be “dissatisfied” with the review once it is complete, at which point the party may forge ahead on the issue of a media appeals tribunal regardless. The logic is simple and also very clever: in the absence of a formal collection of concerns, the ANC does not run the risk of the Press Council addressing its concerns, at which point the pursuit of a media tribunal could be contextualised as madness. But the ANC’s absence from the Press Council review process reveals more than just dirty tactics. It also tells us that the ANC is not truly committed to improving the quality of journalistic reporting in South Africa.
There is no doubt once the Press Council completes its review we will be left with a stronger press code and a better complaints procedure that will be the envy of other countries. But that does not mean that we will be exempt from the threat of a media statutory body.
We must be aware the stage is being set for the presentation of a media appeals tribunal to Parliament. Once the Press Council adopts the new amendments to its procedures and code, nothing prevents the ANC from spouting, “We have tried it your way, given you the space to reform, and you have failed. Now we will do it our way.”
The ANC’s polite refusal to take part in the review process may be the eventual undoing of democratic press self-regulation. DM
This story was originally published at Free African Media.
The Press Council hearings continue in Johannesburg on Friday, with a presentation by the Freedom of Expression Institute.
Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the department of communication science at Unisa. She regularly tweets on media issues on @jbjreid.
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