/ 29 April 2008

Media tribunal ‘unconstitutional’

A statutory media tribunal would not only be unconstitutional but it would not solve the plethora of problems in the industry, a discussion group concluded on Tuesday,

Representatives from the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), the legal, political and media sectors and press ombudsman Joe Thloloe, who met to discuss the African National Congress’s (ANC) proposal, said the party had done a disservice to itself.

However, it had highlighted crucial problems in the industry.

These were among other things ownership, access, the juniorisation of newsrooms, advertiser driven content, standards and ethics.

Jane Duncan from the Freedom of Expression Institute said the proposed body would obviously be unconstitutional, and would not fly.

She said, however, the ANC had highlighted the deficits in the industry and these needed to be addressed.

Many of the representatives said that perhaps the tribunal was proposed and was being investigated by the ANC in light of damning media reports and caricatures about senior members.

Thloloe said that while the media lamented inaccuracies and one-sided stories, perhaps the ANC had proposed the tribunal ”out of desperation”.

He said it was good to debate the proposal but it needed to be made clear that the ANC had only proposed to investigate the possibility of a tribunal.

”So we shouldn’t jump the gun and start accusing them.”

Susan Smuts, the managing editor of the Sunday Times, said one of her biggest questions was what the purpose of the tribunal would be.

She said the media did sometimes write ”quite damaging stories” about politicians and officials, but there were bodies in place to deal with any complaints or redress.

”They do have lots of options, so why a tribunal?

”If anything good is to come from this it is that we look at things and see how we can do them right,” she said.

She said the options included the press ombudsman, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, the right of reply, and the courts.

Democratic Alliance spokesperson Jack Bloom said he felt that the standards and quality of journalism should be questioned.

He said that while politics was not for sissies and politicians needed to be thick-skinned, journalists also needed to be competent and accurate in their reporting.

Constitutional lawyer Dario Milo said the ANC needed to be given credit for raising the issues in journalism.

He said a tribunal, should it be put in place to dictate editorial content, was an infringement on the media’s constitutional right to freedom.

”To directly or indirectly influence what the editor puts in the paper is fundamentally on very shaky constitutional ground.”

Milo said choice of material, length or position of a story should not be sanctioned by a government or body as this would have a ”chilling” effect on media freedom.

An ANC representative was not present at the debate, despite being invited a month prior to the event, the organiser said. – Sapa