On Wednesday night, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said: “Ruth First spent her life fighting censorship. She had envisaged a South Africa where freedom of expression was as essential as the air we breathe. Today’s democratic South Africa stands as a monument to her quest for this noble goal. Accordingly we must commit never to betray these ideals, now or in the future.”
On Thursday morning, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee quoted Motlanthe when she spoke at an event that was proof that the press was determined to ensure that these ideals were forever upheld.
The event was the Press Council of South Africa handing over a document – that has been lauded by top media personalities as the most important document on press freedom – to its member organisations. The 100-page ‘Review’ proposes sweeping changes to the SA Press Code and the functioning of the Press Ombudsman’s office.
South African National Editors Forum (SANEF), the Newspaper Association of SA, the Forum for Community Journalists, the Magazine Publishers Association of SA and the Association of Independent Publishers of South Africa are now to consider the recommendations before any of the changes are implemented.
The report will then be given to the recently established Press Freedom Commission to include in its investigations and final report.
Just last year, President Jacob Zuma and the ruling ANC threatened to enforce a punitive Media Appeals Tribunal that would take regulation of the press out of the hands of the media. While the industry players were adamant that was not the way to go, they supported the Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe’s determination to set up a task team to do this review to enhance the press regulation structures.
The Review adamantly supports continuing self-regulation of the press. This was concluded after the task team conducted public hearings around the country and studying over 100 countries’ press regulation systems to find best practices and what would best suit South Africa.
The team went to work with the understanding that their aim was to improve the quality of journalism in the country and not to appease the ANC government. “Whether the ANC accepts this, is entirely up to them,” said Thloloe yesterday. “But if these recommendations are implemented, they will have an extremely positive effect on our industry.”
He explained that the reworking of the code makes things clearer and in line with international best practice.
The report proposes that the Press Council be restructured to include:
- A director who will concentrate on public engagement around press standards and media freedom;
- A public advocate who will assist members of the public to formulate their complaints, assist in negotiating with a publication and may assist complainants during hearings;
- The ombudsman who will arbitrate matters that are not resolved through negotiation; and
- A chair of appeals that will deal with appeals.
Those on the Press Council believe the proposed structure will be more proactive and distinguish between the Council’s various functions.
Raymond Louw, Press Council chairperson, explained the report’s recommendations:
It recommends that the Ombudsman’s office also cover its members’ online publications. Also, it discarded the idea of having legal representation at the Press Council hearings to keep it cost effective.
It did not approve the issuing of fines; instead it intended to continue and strengthen the practice of matching the size and position of apology and retraction to the gravity of the offence.
For publications that are repeat offenders, Louw said, the Ombudsman may recommend the Press Council convene an enquiry into the reason for the offences and calling for a plan to prevent the recidivism.
He added that plagiarism was expressly prohibited and rules of racism and hate speech were beefed up.
These were just a few of the vital issues dealt with in the Review that Louw refers to as “stage one”. Stage two is the member organisations giving Review to the Press Freedom Commission to examine it and conduct its own investigation to produce the most desirable structure and process. Stage three will be in six to eight months when Commission presents its final report and feedback is given to the Press Council.
SANEF chairperson Mondli Makhanya said that ultimately this work would result in “the best self-regulation system in the world that we will share with the South African public and generations to come long after we are gone”.
He explained that the Review shows that the media is really serious about taking self-regulation more seriously than they have. “We have made mistakes and sometimes not made the correct decisions but we have still done our best to put information into the hands of the public,” Makhanya said. “The best defence to media encroachment is good journalism and that is what this will process will ultimately ensure.”
Peta Krost Maunder is the editor of The Media magazine.