It's 'a political game'
Mmanaledi Mataboge talks to press ombudsman Joe Thloloe about the proposed media tribunal
When and why was the press council formed and a press ombudsman appointed?
The system started in the early 1960s when the National Party government was threatening to regulate the media in the same way the ANC is doing now. To ward off that threat, the industry decided to create a media council.
It has been changing over the years, until after the 1994 elections, when it became clear that we needed to create a whole new structure. A judge from the Constitutional Court was asked to do a public inquiry as to what type of a system is adequate. A committee formed by various media organisations appointed a press ombudsman, Ed Linington.
Is there merit in the argument that because you are a former journalist you are lenient on the press?
It’s not true. All you have to do is look at all the decisions we have made. They are very well thought out. All the people who accuse us of being biased have not even looked at the results of our work. From August 1 2007 to July 31 this year the number of cases that we handled from the government was 13. Sixty-two percent of these cases were decided in favour of the complainants, who are government- or ANC-related.
The ANC claims that, despite the ombudsman ruling on mistakes made by the press, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again by different newspapers.
It is true that sometimes it gets quite irritating when you have made a decision and you find the same mistake repeated in another publication. We are now considering a structured set of workshops throughout all the newsrooms related to the press code, the press council, self-regulation and ethics generally. Luckily for us, we have not had the same mistake being repeated by the same publication.
Why is it better for the ombudsman not to impose sanctions on journalists and editors?
Almost 95% of self-regulation mechanisms around the world do not impose fines, so we are in line with what the rest of the world is doing.
Why is the press ombudsman better than the proposed tribunal?
The self-regulatory mechanism maintains freedom of expression, which is fundamental to democracy. If a statutory tribunal is created, it is going to have to create a code of conduct, which will be imposed on newspapers from outside the newsroom. That is in breach of the Constitution. The system we have is that publications voluntarily adopt this code. It not imposed from outside, so there is no interference with the freedom of expression.
Why do you think the ombudsman is being criticised for being an inadequate avenue through which the public can complain?
It is much more of a political game than a real issue. When somebody complains to this office, we give them a choice right from the beginning. We say to the person: if you want to clear your name quickly, cost effectively, you can use our system. But if you want damages or any form of an award, you might want to use other tribunals, such as the courts. People have been using this system because they think it’s an easier way. If they go to the courts, it is expensive and they [courts] take years before they adjudicate on the matter.
What the ANC is basically saying is that the ombudsman is toothless.
Outsiders think that when a newspaper has to publish an apology on the front page it is not punishment enough. For people inside the industry, you know that having to apologise publicly for a mistake you made erodes your credibility — hence, editors and journalists guard their credibility with their lives.
There have been suggestions before about strengthening the existing press ombudsman’s office. What, in your view, needs to be done to strengthen the press ombudsman?
I don’t think that it can be strengthened in any way. The suggestions that are being thrown out in the ANC alliance at this point don’t make sense. Jailing journalists is absolute rubbish. Fining publications is a possibility but, then again, I don’t think it will serve to improve the quality of journalism in this country.
Would the press ombudsman work better if your position was occupied by a retired judge who would not be seen to be biased?
At the pinnacle of our adjudication system is a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal. If I make a decision either of the parties has a right to appeal to the press appeals panel and it is headed by a judge. You cannot be more objective than that.
It seems the ANC has made its mind up and is going to establish the media tribunal anyway.
The sad thing is that if they go ahead, it will mean the taxpayers’ money, as well as money from the newspapers, will be spent on lawyers fighting the matter right up to the Constitutional Court. I believe very firmly that the Constitutional Court will not uphold the statutory tribunal for the simple reason that it goes against the principles enshrined in the Constitution.