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Media tribunal 'would be a very dangerous move'

Staff Reporter

A media tribunal would be an "imposition" on media freedom, press ombudsman Joe Thloloe warned on Friday.

A media tribunal would be an “imposition” on media freedom, press ombudsman Joe Thloloe warned on Friday.

“Any system imposed from outside the press itself will be an imposition and in violation of the Constitution,” Thloloe told the South African Press Association.

He was responding to the African National Congress’s (ANC) release of a discussion document, entitled “Media transformation, ownership and diversity”, which proposes the setting up of a “Media Appeals Tribunal” to make the media “accountable”.

Thloloe said he approached the ANC about a month ago to try to get clarity on talk of a tribunal, which the ANC said would complement the role of the press council and press ombudsman.

“I was saying we were getting two different positions. The one, from Polokwane, that there will be an investigation into the possibility of a media tribunal ...

“But also, another position, coming from the alliance very strongly, is a view that a tribunal should be established.

“I went there to ask, where are we standing, is there going to be in an investigation or is it [the tribunal] going ahead?

“[I was told] they are going to recommend that Parliament will do an investigation,” said Thloloe.

He said he would be “happy” to participate in an investigation but expressed doubts about its intentions.

“We are very happy to participate in any investigation, but what worries us are the people who have already made up their minds.”

Criticism of press ombudsman
The ANC document criticised the press ombudsman, saying he could not be objective.

The document states: “The mere fact that the press ombudsman is from the media ranks, a former journalist, and is not an independent person who looks at the media from the layman’s perspective, poses an inherent bias towards the media with all interpretations favourable to the institution and the other party just has to understand and accept the media way, which is grossly unfair and unjust.”

But Thloloe, a veteran journalist with almost 50 years’ experience, said the self-regulatory system of the press ombudsman had been copied from various other systems around the world.

“The press ombudsman’s office and the press council are functioning well ... it doesn’t need anything else,” he said.

The ANC discussion document did not really further “flesh out the proposal” of a media tribunal, he added.

“It’s a very strange document ...

“The arguments they have raised so far are not convincing; we can’t take it further because they haven’t fleshed out the proposal.”

South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) chairperson Mondli Makhanya on Friday said Sanef would request a meeting with the ANC to have a “decent conversation” about media freedom.

“There seems to be a huge gulf that has developed between the ANC and the media. We want to sit down with them and a have a decent conversation,” Makhanya told Sapa.

“We will be requesting a meeting with the ANC.”

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe on Thursday invited newspaper editors to join the ruling party’s debate on setting up a statutory media tribunal.

But Makhanya said there was no way Sanef would ever be open to the idea of such a tribunal.

“A media tribunal would be unconstitutional and totally against media freedom. It would be a very, very dangerous move.”

‘We would be open to discussion’
However, Sanef would be willing to discuss the role of the press ombudsman and press council.

Makhanya said the media was not only accountable to the ANC, but to the public, and if the public felt the print media’s self-regulation could be improved, it needed to be discussed.

“We would be open to a discussion on how it can be strengthened,” he said.

The ANC wants an independent statutory body accountable to Parliament to deal with complaints against newspapers, instead of only using the press ombudsman, who currently deals with complaints.

Mantashe said on Thursday, according to the Star: “Our invitation is that the media must engage in that debate constructively, throw around ideas and not defend its own turf.

“The fact that editors and columns in the newspapers are on the defensive is not going to stop us from having that discussion. It’s up to them if they want to contribute to that debate, and actually to influence it.

“It is up to them, if they think they are on the defensive and must take a laager approach to that discussion, they are doing that at their own peril,” said Mantashe.—Sapa

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