Will the Press Freedom Commission rescue media freedom, or is it just more of the same? Media analyst Julie Reid considers its relevance.
In the face of criticism for the system of press self-regulation – most notably in the form of complaints emanating from the ANC over the shoddy state of journalism in the country – the South African Press Council recently conducted a year-long process of review. It was an intense and laborious undertaking for the Press Ombudsman’s office. It involved a review not only of its own complaints procedure, the press code and the Press Council’s constitution, but also meant examining similar self-regulatory systems elsewhere. In addition, the office hosted public hearings in five different cities around the country to gather public comment and participation.
Because the Press Council invited both written submissions and oral presentations from interested persons who wanted to make suggestions on how to improve the system of press self-regulation, it effectively opened itself up to a barrage of criticism from academics and civil society. The Press Council largely seems to have taken much of this criticism humbly on the chin and, after considering all 58 submissions, compiled a review report, released in August 2011.
But the process of reviewing the system of press self-regulation in South Africa does not end there. In July 2011, something called the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) was launched by Print Media SA (PMSA) and the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) – also with the explicit purpose of reviewing the system of press self-regulation in South Africa.
This had many of us asking the immediate question: why launch the PFC to do precisely the same thing that the Press Council has just done? Since the strengthening and improvement of self-regulation seem to be one of the only things standing between the freedom of the press and the ominous Media Appeals Tribunal, this question deserves a closer look.
The PFC is made up of nine commissioners, headed by Justice Pius Langa and, according to its website, will conduct an independent review of press regulation. The justification for performing this review, after the initial review by the Press Council, is that while the Press Council’s review was performed effectively to review itself – which raises obvious questions of the validity or unbiased nature of the review – the PFC’s review will be “an independent investigation by people who are not involved in print media”.
There is value in that. But it won’t take long for the ANC to argue that this commission has been set up and is funded by PMSA and Sanef – two bodies populated by people who are mostly certainly involved in print media.
Also, three months into its existence, no one seemed to know what the PFC is, or what it does. This is a problem for a commission whose lifespan is a projected eight months at most. It is also a problem because one of the main complaints widely levelled at the Press Council during its course of public hearings was the low level of public participation in the process, since the hearings were not terribly well-attended.
Many complained that the hearings were not advertised widely enough, and that there was very little awareness surrounding the process of the review, or even the very existence of the Press Council. A representative from the PFC assured me that this same debacle would not be repeated by them during its process of review, and that the hearings would be effectively publicised this time round.
These hearings have been scheduled to take place at the end of January 2012 – and the six weeks prior to the hearings are that most universally unproductive time of year for all South Africans: silly season. It’s never a good idea to ask South Africans to concentrate on anything too serious when they are preparing for heading to the beach for a few weeks. Their ‘publicity’ got off to a slow start on October 9, and time will tell if the PFC has left itself adequate time to not only convince everyone of its existence but also get people to show up at public hearings in January 2012.
On August 2, the PFC published its final terms of reference, which outlines its mandate. This document begins by saying that: “Print Media SA (PMSA) and the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef)… believe that freedom of expression is best fostered through a system of media self-regulation…” That’s great. Part of why it is great is because this position is consistent with widespread global opinion and literature from media experts around the world. They agree that, in a democracy, self-regulation is the best method to regulate the press, and is especially preferred over statutory (government) regulation.
It is also in keeping with The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, which states that “effective self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media”. But, on reading the PFC’s final terms of reference document a little further, you will discover the following: “… the PFC will research the regulation of specifically print media, locally and globally. Self-regulation, co-regulation, independent regulation and state regulation will be examined.”
That’s a problem.
It’s problematic because, from the get-go, the PFC tells us that it favours the system of self-regulation. So we can only question the validity, reliability and scientific objectivity of its review of “co-regulation, independent regulation and state regulation”, when it is very clear that it is not in favour of any of these systems. Now I am fully convinced that self-regulation is the best form of regulation for the press. But, as a social scientist, my hair stands on end when I encounter lapses of objective research practice.
Again, when considering these terms of reference, we can be assured that when it comes to discussing a Media Appeals Tribunal, the ANC will point out that the PFC’s assessment of systems of regulation, other than self-regulation, cannot be taken too seriously.
I recently asked a group of journalists what they thought of the PFC. Considering that this commission may be the last defence that the media industry has against a Media Appeals Tribunal, I expected a positive response. I was mistaken. “It’s a waste of money. That money should rather have gone to the Press Council,” said one journalist. It’s a fair point. The Press Council is a tiny institution with a mammoth task. It would be an understatement to say that the Press Ombudsman’s office would take a little less strain if it had a little more manpower.
Without getting into the details, on reading the Press Council’s review report, it is easy to see that many of the decisions that were taken to strengthen the system of self-regulation were determined not by what would be best for this system, but rather by what is practically possible to pull off when working with limited resources. The Press Council cannot be blamed for this, but the PFC will be worth its salt if it insists that the Press Council be allocated greater resources. PMSA should not ask itself how much money the Press Council needs to survive, but rather, what kind of money it is willing to cough up to protect the freedom of the press.
All of the above concerns aside, perhaps this shaky start is not a bad omen for the outcome of the PFC. If it does manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat and produce a review report that holds up in terms of validity and thoroughness, that material could be used to argue against statutory regulation of the press when (not if) the ANC initiates parliamentary discussions into media accountability mechanisms and a Media Appeals Tribunal. If that is the case, then the value of the PFC will be truly priceless. Let’s hold thumbs that the PFC’s ducks get into a row. Quickly.
Follow Julie Reid on Twitter @jbjreid
Follow the Press Freedom Commission on Twitter @PFCommission
This story was first published in The Media magazine.