Defend Truth


Press freedom in South Africa and why self-regulation is best

Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly from @jbjreid and writes about media policy debates and the state of media freedom in South Africa. Julie is the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM), and an active member of the Right2Know campaign. She is involved in various media policy research projects, has published research in the field of media studies and edited a book on South African visual culture.

Forget all the emotive arguments for and against self-regulation of the media. The numbers alone paint a clear picture: 70% of the top 50 countries in the Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House press-freedom rankings practice self-regulation.

Almost a year after the Press Council of South Africa held hearings around the country to hear what the public had to say about the system of self-regulation of the press, the newly established Press Freedom Commission is doing something similar in January 2012. Akin to what happened during the Press Council’s process of review, the Press Freedom Commission asked for written applications to be submitted by interested parties prior to the public hearings. The main difference between these two processes, however, is crucial. 

While the Press Council asked citizens to provide opinion on the system of press regulation in South Africa (self-regulation), the Press Freedom Commission asked for comments on all four of the main types of press regulation, which include independent regulation, co-regulation and most significantly, statutory regulation. People then had to consider whether they were satisfied with allowing the press to regulate itself, or whether other parties should be brought into the process, particularly whether government should have a hand in keeping an eye on the press. 

A system in which the print industry takes the responsibility of regulating the press upon itself has its advantages and disadvantages. The most fundamental advantage, which has been stated often, is that it allows for journalistic and editorial independence and freedom of speech. Ideally, you want a situation where journalists are free to operate without fear or interference from any of the main societal centres of power such as big business or the government.

But the ANC has in recent years complained that South Africa’s system of self-regulation, embodied in the Press Council, is not working properly. As evidence of this, the ruling party refers to what it calls continuing “shoddy journalism” and argues that the Press Council is a “toothless” mechanism because it does not impose harsh “sentences” on offending newspapers who get the facts of a story wrong. Since the middle of 2010 this debate has heated up (and down, and up again) and fairly emotive arguments have been bandied about from many corners, both in favour of and sharply against self-regulation as a mechanism for press accountability. 

A research team from the University of South Africa’s department of communication science considered the relationship between the system of media accountability practised within a country, and the knock-on effect this had on the country’s press freedom. The premise of this study was that concerns of press accountability in South Africa should not be viewed outside of the wider political context in which the state of press freedom is currently setting off loud alarm bells. 

The 66-page report prepared for the Press Freedom Commission by the Unisa team lists a number of recommendations for the improvement of the current press self-regulation. These include that the Press Council should accept third-party complaints, which means that any member of the public could complain about the content of the press, instead of only persons who are directly affected by a particular news report. The Unisa report also argues for a consideration of the South African context when selecting the “most appropriate” mechanism for press regulation, and for a re-look at the Press Council’s willingness to extend its jurisdiction to online publications in terms of the logistical and technical consequences. 

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the Unisa report, when it comes to figuring out which method of self-regulation would be best, is the inventory of foreign systems of press regulation and press freedom indices. The logic of this inventory is quite simple. It examines the top 50 countries which scored the highest press freedom ratings in the world according to the indices compiled by Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House (arguably the two most widely consulted annual press freedom indices). The inventory then lists the press accountability mechanisms of these countries – and the results are telling.

There are only 16 countries in the world which achieve an entirely free press rating according to both Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House Reporters. South Africa is not one of them. Of the 16 countries with a 100% free press, 15 of them practise a system of press self-regulation. The only exception is Denmark. Although Denmark had a self-regulatory body at one time, this collapsed due to financial disputes, at which point the government stepped in. The Danish Press Council, however, insists it operates independently of the government. 

Significantly, the Unisa report reveals of the 50 countries which have recently achieved the highest press freedom ratings in the world, 35 of them practise self-regulation of the press. This means 70% of the top 50 countries practise self-regulation of the press. That number is quite staggering. 

It is also worth noting that of the 15 countries in the top 50 who do not practise self-regulation of the press, three of them have no regulatory mechanism for the press whatsoever (although Jamaica is in the process of establishing a self-regulatory press council). This brings the number of countries who do not practise self-regulation down to 12, meaning the real percentage is 24%. Significantly, these countries appear mostly at the lower end of the ranking inventory, while self-regulated countries tend to creep up the ladder of press-freedom rankings. 

These numbers and the noticeable trends they reveal are not only interesting, they are crucial. I will be the first to tell you that I am not entirely satisfied with the current self-regulatory system in South Africa, and believe it could be improved. Like other media theorists, I also know that self-regulation of the press is far from being a perfect system. But if we put all the emotional arguments for and against press self-regulation aside, and look only at these numbers, then we have to admit that statistically the mechanism of self-regulation seems to be the most likely system under which press freedom can thrive. It cannot be a coincidence that almost all of the countries with the highest press-freedom ratings in the world (save one) practise self-regulation of the press. 

While press self-regulation is not, and never will be, a flawless system, it is (for now) the most likely situation that human beings have managed to construct under which press freedom stands a chance of a healthy survival. DM

Dr Julie Reid is an academic at the Department of Communication Science at Unisa, and the head of the research team which compiled the report prepared by Unisa for the Press Freedom Commission. 


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