Independent Media does have an internal complaints procedure, despite resigning from the South African Press Council, and installing its own ombud.
The Media Online recently reported that the newspaper group, in response to a ‘cautionary note’ issued by the ministry of public enterprises, said “Anyone, including the Ministry of Public Enterprises, had recourse to Independent Media’s internal Ombudsman should they wish to lodge a formal complaint.”
However, we established that the company’s internal ombud, Jovial Rantao, had left the group’s employ more than a year ago, as had a member of its appeal panel, Rich Mkhondo. No successor had been appointed in the group ombud role.
At our request, the group’s communications advisor sent copies of the ‘New Complaints Process’ and the two different appeals processes.
The document specifies how a “natural person who has a direct and personal interest in published material may complain”.
A “company, trust, association or other corporate institution which has a direct interest in published material may complain, subject to Clause 3 below”.
This particular clause stipulates:
3.1 Any complainant other than a natural person, a registered Non-Profit Organisation or a Public Benefit Organisation, shall pay a refundable deposit of R5 000.00 before the complaint will be considered by the Ombud.
3.2 If the complainant referred to in 3.1 above is substantially successful, the deposit shall be refunded to the complainant.
3.3 The Ombud may, on good cause shown, waive the requirement for the deposit.
Press Ombudsman Pippa Green says the Press Council does not charge a fee to consider a complaint. “I had heard about this ‘deposit’ for making a complaint against an Independent newspaper and asked a senior Independent manager, who denied it,” she said.
“But everyone I know who has made a complaint speaks about it. There is no charge for coming to the Press Council. In any event such a charge would be deeply discriminatory against less well-off complainants, even if the deposit is ‘refundable’. And by the way, it sets up an objective conflict of interest for the adjudicators – even if they claim to be impartial. Because they work for the company, every complaint where they rule in favour of the complainant ‘costs’ their company a sum of money it would otherwise accrue.”
Independent Media will also not accept a complaint “unless the complainant, or in the case of acceptable third- party complaints (see Clause 1.2), the person affected by the publication, has waived his/her/its rights to institute an action or application in any court or other tribunal”.
Green said the Press Council had dropped the waiver after the Press Freedom Commission, chaired by Judge Pius Langa, declared it unconstitutional in 2012/2013.
“The Press Council and the system we have now grew out of that commission,” she explained. “In terms of the Constitution, everyone has the right of access to a court. Independent Newspapers left the Press Council in 2016 ostensibly because we had dropped the waiver, but it had also been the subject of a number of adverse rulings so it is hard to determine the real reason. We do not, however, allow parallel processes. If someone is taking a matter through the courts, we will not take it on simultaneously.”
The figures are telling, Green said. “Although people are now entitled to sue even if they have brought a complaint to the Press Council, very few people in reality do. In the past six years, only three people have – and none of them successfully. They have either settled for less, or dropped the cases; one even settled for an apology from the reporter (not even the editor),” she said.
The document refers to a ‘regional executive editor’ tasked with mediating between the title/parties to reach an ‘amicable solution’. It says, “The REE’s role is to act as an independent, impartial and fair public prosecutor at the remedial phase and to mediate between the parties to the complaint before there is a need to proceed to the Primary Phase of Adjudication”.
Independent and impartial?
But is there enough distance between the REE and the complainant to truly be independent and impartial? Latiefa Mobara, executive director of the Press Council, said it was important to emphasise the independence of it process.
“Internal ombuds (installed by some media houses) are usually designated by the editors to draft the responses to the Press Council complaints and to ensure that the Press Council adheres to the timeframes set out in our complaints procedures,” she said.
“If, and when, an internal ombud deals with a complaint (one that does not come via our office) and they cannot resolve it amicably, they will refer the complainant to the Press Council and ask us to mediate. The idea is that the media is at all times accountable for what it publishes.”
Mobara said the work of the Press Council is overseen by three judges. Judge Phillip Levinsohn is the Press Council chair; Judge Bernard Ngoepe heads the Appeals Panel and Justice Yvonne Mokgoro heads the Appointments Panel.
“We review and update the Press Code regularly so that we are able to respond quickly to the changing media environment,” said Mobara. “We are currently finalising guidelines on how journalists and editors should engage with social media; updating our Code to bring it in line with Popia regulations and will be producing guidelines for journalists on how to safeguard personal information that they may have access to during the newsgathering process.”
Green said many internal public editors do a good job and play an important role in maintaining standards and ethics. But, she added, it was very difficult for them to divorce themselves completely from the interests of their colleagues.
“Often they will deal with initial complaints but if they cannot solve a dispute it comes to us. If there is no other more objective channel to take a complaint, the complainant is put in a very unfair situation. Although we come from a journalism background (and thus have many formal and informal links with editors), our prescribed role has to be an objective and distanced one,” she explained.
“It is the only protection for a complainant who may have been treated unfairly. It is also important to note that the Press Code came out of the Langa Commission – it is a document that is the product of legal and journalistic expertise but also, importantly, of consensus. Our member publications subscribe to and accept the Press Code. In this way self-regulation, and the voluntary compliance with agreed standards is strengthened.”
The Independent Media documents specify that sanctions and rulings must be published on the Group’s ombud website. But the page has been undergoing maintenance for quite some time. “I haven’t seen evidence of a fully operational ‘ombudsman’ or ombuds system for a while. It may be a temporary glitch, but if their internal system is to be taken with any seriousness, it is really important that the rulings are transparently published,” Green said.
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