The South African media is an active platform where views and opinions can and must be contested by anyone. But the ANC has raised eyebrows with its proposal to investigate selfregulation within the media. The political party believes transformation has not yet succeeded in unlocking a plurality of views.
The entire logic of it could make one giddy: Launch a probe into an industry which regulates itself (like 66 other countries around the world in which it has been proven as the most effective method of monitoring). Besides overstepping the mark and making self-regulation a complete joke, the ANC intends, through its actions to set up a tribunal to ensure diversity of views within the mainstream media.
“A tribunal is a court of justice. I cannot understand the reasons why the ANC would want to set up a tribunal to govern media diversity,” says Raymond Louw, Media Freedom Committee chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).
Arguments in favour of the ANC’s decision seem to become intertwined with worries that there is an underlying agenda to attack the government’s image. By this, it could be argued, that government is concerned not by the fact that there are not enough voices, but rather that not enough voices sing its praise Ã¢Â€Â“ a public relations concern at most.
Sanef is one of the country’s more vocal lobby groups with a mandate to, above all, safeguard media freedom on behalf of its members Ã¢Â€Â“ individual editors from media houses across the country.
Besides raising concerns around talk of a tribunal, it has vehemently opposed government’s attempts to pass the Film and Publications amendment bill, which proposes the lifting of certain print media pre-publication exemptions in favour of allowing government to monitor child pornography.It has also written extensively on matters such as subjudice and commented on the recent Sunday Times reports alleging that Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimangwas a “drunk and a kleptomaniac”. Its comments on the latter have placed it in a precarious position with one of its largest members Ã¢Â€Â“ the SABC, who believe it should not have taken such a stance. SABC CEO Dali Mpofu has threatened to withdraw its membership and, at the time of going to print, the matter was not resolved.
One thing Sanef shares with many media freedom bodies,including the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) and the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) Ã¢Â€Â“ which was in fact set up by government to deal with such issues as increasing the voices in media – is a lack of funding.
However, Louw says that should Sanef, or any of the above mentioned bodies, need to, for example, fight the Film and Publication amendment bill in court, they would be able to raise funding from interested European funds as well as certain foundations dedicated to press freedom.
Those in the best funding situation are probably Print Media South Africa and the Magazine Publishers Association of SA (Mpasa). While both would probably disagree, the two institutions by and large represent the commercial interests of their members and for doing so receive appropriate recompense.
Mpasa recently became the centre of a debate over whether its chairwoman, Patricia Scholtemeyer, the CEO of Media24 Magazines, should step down following a circulation scandal within the media giant.
It took the decision not to kick Scholtemeyer off the board, but rather to limit her representation to matters not concerning Media24, from which she would have to remove herself. The body took its time in giving a comment regarding the circulation debacle and even then did not announce much more than the banning of the titles which had been involved.
It has an ongoing programme to convince advertisers to spend their money on magazines rather than other media products and no doubt Scholtemeyer’s involvement will make it twice as hard. But perhaps this is a better strategy than we think Ã¢Â€Â“ get those accountable to stand in the front lines so that when advertisers do ask questions, she will be in a better position to convince them of her innocence.
Print Media SA represents over 700 newspapers and magazines. It announced recently it would be taking government to task over individual opinions within the presidency that the government should remove its advertising from the Sunday Times.
These threats are used in countries across Africa, where there are strained relations between the government and media, as a leash to call the industry to heel if it misbehaves. PMSA said it had called an urgent meeting with Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad about the threats, which followed the newspaper’s coverage of Tshabalala-Msimang.
Jane Duncan of the FXI recently said at a symposium held at Wits university that advertising, especially from government, should never be used to censor the media. Whether anyone is capable of convincing the government remains to be seen.
PMSA is also charged with assessing the transformation of the industry and recently announced it would not sign the Marketing, Advertising and Communications (MAC) industry empowerment charter because it felt the print industry was a standalone sector with its own guidelines. These included the Press Council’s press code, Sanef’s constitution and undertakings it has with the MDDA.
PMSA has indicated that it would take the matter surrounding the Film and Publications amendment act to the constitutional court, should the bill be passed in its current form and this gives a certain sense of financial clout to the claims.
The MDDA’s founding CEO Libby Lloyd believes that there are too few people with access to only one form of media – most often a community radio station. She says diversity is a matter of ownership, content and content production but also the range of available media products.
The MDDA was set up by parliament to enable “historically disadvantaged communities and persons not adequately served by the media” to gain access to the media. Its beneficiaries, it says, are the community media industry and small commercial media. It has, to date, funded 135 projects off just R150-million.
Lloyd said the MDDA would battle to achieve diversity because its focus is limited to developing small and micro media and community offerings. Media commentator Kate Skinner says that the original thinking behind the MDDA was that it should be “a statutory institution, well-funded through a compulsory levy to look across all tiers in order to develop community media, but also lobby other spheres”. She says that its mandate hasbeen reduced to dealing with community media. Skinner believes that due to this mandate and funding model, the message was: “We don’t want you to say too much regarding commercial media.”
Some believe that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa and SABC should be the ones to comment on development of diversity within the media industry on an annual basis. While SABC does this to an extent by reporting its annual programming developments, Icasa has seemingly become bogged down with licensing issues and the setting up of its Complaints and Compliance Committee (CCC) and has not said much in terms of actual and effective programmes in this regard.
Press ombudsman Joe Thloloe is considered to be at the pinnacle of ensuring a free press. The ombudsman sees about 200 complaints a year and has been heralded as highly effective by most who have used It as a low-cost mediator in matters where they feel they may have been wronged by the press. Comments made recently by Pahad raised concerns surrounding the press council and its ombudsman’s role in the eyes of government.
Pahad emphasised that the government was concerned with upholding a free press within a self-regulated environment. But he later questioned whether this was enough. “Who is to guard the guard themselves?” he asked, with reference to one of Plato’s arguments.
He later went on to propose the press council pursue a “higher profile” whereby Joe Tholoe’s name is known to every household in the country. An ideal indeed that it no doubt already pursues. Pahad then raised the question “should (the press council) ideally play watchdog or bloodhound?”, asking whether the council should act in a more “pro-active” way, “to seek out abuse and head off unsatisfactory situations that can arise? Not just wait for complaints?”
Besides the age-old parable that the effectiveness of a good legal or judicial system is not measured by its bite but rather by its fairness, some believe Pahad’s comments to be out of order.
“To suggest that an ombudsman must be a policeman, an enforcer as well as a judge is unreasonable,” says Louw.
“The ombudsman can only act on a complaints basis… its purpose is to provide inexpensive adjudication. The print media is subject to the same laws as anyone else and this is protection enough,” he adds.
Where the debate between the government and the media will lead is unknown. At best it will (and should) became an ongoing one challenged openly in the pages of South Africa’s wide ranging selection of newspapers, as is presently the case.
On thing is certain though Ã¢Â€Â“ this is democracy at its best and if nothing else the friction we are currently experiencing between government and regulators will be a prized opportunity to boost the role and image of those regulators and the industry as a whole. If, as Louw suggests, journalists are as protective of their craft as he believes, this will be the very arena in which their resolve is put to the test.
This article first appeared in The Media magazine.
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