It seemed touch-and-go for press freedom after the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference called for statutory regulation of the South African press council.
But advocates of self-regulation have been soldiering on. Now, judging by the August 27 report by Joe Thloloe, Press Ombudsperson, the system seems to be winning political acceptance.
In a highly significant development, Thloloe’s report notes that President Jacob Zuma has himself submitted a complaint to the body. And so too has Judge John Hlophe, plus there have been three from the ANC.
Thloloe’s report shows him to be additionally pleased that that both Hlophe and the ANC announced publicly they would be approaching his office even before their complaints actually arrived.
Earlier in the year, then-president Kgalema Motlanthe also spoke of approaching the press council, in relation to newspapers publishing claims by a self-proclaimed mistress.
It amounts to a contrasting approach to the Polokwane resolution, which said the self-regulatory system was ”not adequate to sufficiently protect the rights of the individual citizens, communities and society as a whole”. Polokwane also put on the agenda the possibility of creating a ”Media Appeals Tribunal” reporting to Parliament, which would adjudicate over the rulings of the press council.
In response to much lobbying, in March this year the ANC said it had decided to shelve the statutory tribunal issue and reconsider it at the next policy conference. That this is being followed up with using the press council is a very promising sign.
The complaint from Zuma was against Independent Newspapers for reporting that he was spending taxpayers’ money on renovating his house in Durban. His case was that this was the president’s official residence in the city and the project had commenced when Thabo Mbeki was president.
As it happened, Zuma later withdrew his complaint, explaining that the press had subsequently reported well on his explanatory statement about the renovations. In other words, there had been correction even without necessitating the council’s intervention.
While some journalists have recently argued that Zuma should withdraw his defamation cases against several journalists and cartoonist Zapiro, the rules of press council system make this complicated. This is because the council requires complainants to waive their rights to go to court if they want the self-regulatory body to consider their case.
Thloloe’s recent report reports how the council has responded to criticism of this proviso. It notes that that an explanatory note about the waiver has been devised.
The note reads: ”This waiver is designed to avoid tribunal-hopping and to prevent a publication having to answer twice on the same complaint — to us and then later to the courts or other tribunals.” What this means in the instance of Zuma’s defamation actions, is that he could not approach the council as long as he continues a court case about his particular unhappiness.
This is not to say that the president couldn’t drop these court actions. He could also switch horses altogether, but he would not be able to ride both at the same time.
Of course, like any citizen, Zuma has an undisputed right to seek judicial relief for coverage that he feels unfairly diminished his dignity and reputation. Yet, as president, it could also send out a very positive signal if he did decide to drop it. Or at least to put all his eggs into the press council basket.
In that second eventuality, he would not have to worry that the council would be biased against him. If anything, many of the council’s rulings found in favour of complainants, and generated unhappiness in the newsrooms.
For instance, according to Thloloe’s report, the Mail & Guardian is currently appealing a decision that went against the newspaper, and in so doing it has accused him of defaming the journalist in the ruling.
The point is that the press council is not a charade that serves primarily to protect the journalists from complaints. Its credibility rests wholly in it being an authentic independent process of redress to citizens when, as too easily happens, media ethics go awry and people’s rights are infringed.
Self-regulation as a sincere acknowledgement of the need for a self-disciplinary structure was the thinking prevalent amongst the organisations of editors, journalists and publishers that founded the system in 1996.
That was long before Polokwane waved the big stick, and people passionate about press freedom got scared.
If it functions effectively, a press council can keep government control out of media. But that is, ultimately, a valuable by-product of doing the right thing in terms of upholding quality standards and requiring editors to publish apologies and corrections when found wrong.
Acting as a sop to a predatory government should never constitute the motive force or raison d’etre of self-regulation.
As happened under apartheid, when ”self-regulation” is a response to political threats to ”get your house in order, or else”, then it becomes an agency of self-censorship or of cynical game playing.
The bona fides of the current South African system are evident in its membership base. Although designed as a self-corrective mechanism by the newspaper industry (which pays the bills), its structures are such that it is not a media-dominated body. Instead, both the council and its appeals panel have an equal mix of journalists and public nominees. An additional member, who may not be connected to the media, chairs the appeals panel — currently, it is retired Supreme Court judge Ralph Zulman.
So far in this year alone, Thloloe reports that he has handled 103 complaints, with 58 still in process. Little wonder then that his office is currently advertising for a deputy ombudsperson and will henceforth be putting all its rulings online.
In sum, self-regulation looks like it’s here for the long haul. That’s a fine thing for independent quality assurance of newspaper journalism — and for press freedom as well.
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