Media, Politics

Press Council review supports self-regulation, obviously

By Theresa Mallinson 19 August 2011

The Press Council report into media regulation in South Africa has come out strongly in favour of continued self-regulation, with a few tweaks here and there. Whether this is enough to finally and completely dissuade the ruling party from looking into setting up a media appeals tribunal is arguable. By THERESA MALLINSON.

On Thursday morning the Press Council of South Africa launched its much-anticipated review looking at the functioning of the council and the press ombudsman. The launch was extremely well supported, with the venue at the Women’s Jail on Constitutional Hill filled with journalists, media academics, and other interested parties. It’s probably fair to say that more people showed up than ever attended any of the council’s public hearings, which were held around the country in February and March this year.

The public-hearings process resulted in 58 submissions (both written and oral), which the task team took into consideration when drafting its final review. The review’s strongest statement was about the general principle of self-regulation. The report states that the three parameters of “historical context, commitment to freedom of expression, and media co-operation… favour non-statutory press regulation in South Africa”. It goes on to add: “The task team, in the end, found that press self-regulation remains the best method of ensuring accountability. It should be born in mind that the form adopted in South Africa is not true self-regulation in any event: there is strong public representation on the bodies of the Press Council of South Africa.”

Among the report’s more detailed recommendations were:

  • that the press council be restructured to include a director, a public advocate, an ombudsman, and a chair of appeals;
  • that the jurisdiction of the ombudsman’s office cover the online publications of its members (although no mention was made of online-only publications);
  • that fines not be imposed on newspapers or individuals (impoverished journalists can breathe a sigh of relief at this one);
  • that the Press Code includes a section focusing on children’s rights; has guidelines on privacy, dignity and reputation; sets out guidelines for avoiding conflicts of interest; expressly prohibits plagiarism; expands guidelines on confidential and anonymous sources; and beefs up rules about discrimination and hate speech;
  • that the council publicise information about its funding; and
  • that the turnaround time on complaints be improved.

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird said: “The idea of a public advocate to try and make (the ombudsman) more accessible to mediate people’s responses (is) quite a significant shift, and that’s a very positive thing. In terms of the structure and the funding, on one level, you can kind of see their tactic, which is they’re not going to give away too much before they really know where they stand. So (critics) can’t say they haven’t done anything significant. At the same time, the fundamental issue of the fines, and the waiver (whereby one cannot submit a complaint to the ombudsman, if you take the matter to court), have stayed the same. It’s two steps forward, and two steps back.”

At the launch itself, of course, it was all about taking journalism forward. After short speeches by a who’s who of media in South Africa – City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, Press Council chairman Raymond Louw, Print Media South Africa chairman Hoosain Karjieker, and Sanef chairman Mondli Makhanya – the report was officially handed over by Louw to the Press Council’s constituent bodies. Then it was time for the juicy bit: question time.

When asked about how self-regulation would work in relation to the proposed media appeals tribunal, Franz Kruger was unequivocal: “We hope there won’t be (a tribunal),” he said. “We’re very clear that the media appeals tribunal is a very poor idea. Our pitch is to do the best for journalism and the public that reads us, we hope not to have relate at all to the proposed tribunal and initiatives of its kind.”

Speaking about the timing of the review, Peter Mann said it was serendipitous. “In all honesty, I think there (were issues) and we were doing this because of the complaints and the noise….” he said. “(But) the point to make is we’d decided on this review before the pressure came on.” This doesn’t quite square up with the press statement accompanying the report’s launch, which says that the review was undertaken “partly because the five-year term of office of the present Press Council is coming to an end and it was felt that a review was timely; and partly because of criticisms directed at the print media by the ruling African National Congress, government ministers and officials and some members of the public”.

However, during question time ombudsman Joe Thloloe was very clear that the review was not about pandering to the ANC. He said the intention was to “do things that will improve journalism in the country”, but not to “do anything that will appease the ANC or other critics, if it’s not about improving journalism”. Thloloe concluded by stating: “Whether ANC will accept this or not, it’s entirely up to them”.

Rather than acceptance by the ANC, the task team is waiting for the industry bodies which make up the Press Council to issue their stamp of approval. These are Sanef, the Forum for Community Journalists, and the three members of PMSA. But before this can happen, the council will have to wait for the recently established Press Freedom Commission, initiated by Sanef and the PMSA, to produce its own report. The PFC report will consider the Press Council review, and the industry bodies will in turn consider the PFC report, as well as the Press Council review. If this process sounds convoluted, that’s because it is.

However, when asked by Daily Maverick whether the fact that the PFC was producing yet another report on the issue of self-regulation meant that the Press Council’s own work wasn’t being taken seriously, Thloloe denied this. “From our point of view, what happens is that the council is constituted by five associations, and once we have completed the report it is these associations that have to give us the green light – whether we go ahead or don’t go ahead,” he said. “What they have said is we will not respond to your report until the PFC has (conducted) its own hearings…

“Whether this is in fact a way of minimising the impact of our work? – I don’t think that is true,” Thloloe contended. “Every time we take a resolution at the Press Council, it has to be endorsed by the five associations, so it is normal process. They have decided on this way of responding to us, and I think they are entitled to use whatever way they (want)…. For all we know the PFC might say ‘you guys did a wonderful job, go ahead with your changes’; or they might say ‘can we tweak this, or can we tweak that?’, or ‘can we have statutory regulation?’, and then the Press Council will then engage with the five associations on that point.”

The PFC will take six to eight months to complete its report, which means it’ll be some time before we find out which of the Press Council review’s recommendations are adopted. Commenting on the review overall, Bird said: “On one level I think they’ve made a fairly genuine attempt to make a really good self-regulatory system, but the extent to which it’s going to satisfy the real critics of it, I guess we’ll have to wait and see”.

During his speech, Makhanya said that the “best defence of media freedom is good journalism itself”. It was a timely reminder that, as much as the Press Council’s review will be picked over during the next few months, with media commentators all having their say about how its suggested improvements can be improved upon, we are all ultimately working towards the same goal: good journalism and a free media. And no matter what the ANC or other media critics might argue, the two concepts are inextricably linked. DM

Read more:

  • Media must continue with self-regulation: Press Council, on Sapa, via TimesLive.

Photo: Press ombudsman Joe Thloloe.



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