Press Council warns against media tribunal

Chairperson of the Press Council of South Africa, Raymond Louw, on Monday took issue with a call by the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) for a statutory media appeals tribunal.

In a statement, Louw said he was “appalled” by this call, and said that the “manner in which this call is being made and the indications … that have been given of the objectives appear to be a clear violation of the Constitution in relation to the promotion of freedom of expression and media freedom”.

The imposing of such a tribunal on the press has “nothing to do with promoting press freedom but everything to do with the way the press reports on the conduct of governance, including the conduct of Cabinet ministers and other senior officials of the party”.

The statement also took aim at “a startling ignorance about what goes on in the press ombudsman’s office”.

The full statement by the Press Council of South Africa:

Statement by the Press Council chairman Raymond Louw on call for Media Appeals Tribunal.

As chairman of the South African Press Council which administers the Press Ombudsman system of press self-regulation, I am appalled that the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress are calling for the institution of a statutory media appeals tribunal “to strengthen media freedom and accountability.” The manner in which this call is being made and the indications, as far as they go, that have been given of the objectives appear to be a clear violation of the constitution in relation to the promotion of freedom of expression and media freedom.

The various reasons for setting up the tribunal offered by office bearers of the two parties and contained in the document put out by the ANC for discussion at its national general council in September– “Media transformation, ownership and diversity”, are quite clear why they want to impose it on the press. It has nothing to do with promoting press freedom but everything to do with the way the press reports on the conduct of governance including the conduct of cabinet ministers and other senior officials of the party. They don’t want the public to be told of their poor governance, corruption by “tenderpreneurs” and lavish life-styles. They want the press to report the African National Congress’s version of what is happening.

This emerges clearly in the discussion document. It states: “Our objectives therefore are to vigorously communicate the ANC’s outlook and values (developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non sexism, working together) versus the current mainstream
media’s ideological outlook (neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism, etc).”

The statements also display a startling ignorance about what goes on in the Press Ombudsman’s office. The Communist Party states that the ombudsman’s office is made up of people from the media, who decide on complaints.

Indeed, the ombudsman is a senior journalist. It is an essential requirement for a person adjudicating on the conduct of the media and journalism to be well versed in the methods and practice of journalism and a senior journalist fills that role.
But there is strong public representation in that office. When the Ombudsman conducts a hearing, he sits with two people, one a journalist and the other a public representative. Indeed, there are six public representatives and six journalists available for hearings by the ombudsman and the Appeals Panel.

The Appeals Panel — which is engaged when either the complainant or the defending newspaper appeals against the Ombudsman’s finding — is chaired by a non-journalist. He is a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal and when he holds a hearing he sits with one public and one press representative.

Thus to suggest that the office and proceedings are conducting by “people from the media” is false and is being propagated mischievously.

Another complaint by the politicians is that the ombudsman’s office is “inadequate” without explaining what they mean by that, except to imply in some of their statements that they want punitive prison sentences and fines meted out to journalists and publishers.

In regard to penalties, the Ombudsman imposes what is regarded by the media as one embodying serious sanction. If found wanting, a paper can be called upon to publish a correction and an apology prominently as well as the strictures of the ombudsman or appeals panel.
This punishment strikes at the heart of a newspaper’s operations. It tells readers that the newspaper was not only inaccurate but that it behaved unprofessionally or even dishonestly. Nothing damages a newspaper more than a finding against its credibility and trustworthiness. If the public lose its trust in a newspaper in regard to its methods of operation and accuracy it can go out of business, thus enduring the ultimate sanction.

The SACP talks of accountability. The public accountability described above is what publishers and journalists fear most — that which results in the withdrawal of support from the paper.

The ANC and the Communist Party, despite their having voted for the Films and Publications Act, also forget that the ombudsman’s office has been given legislative recognition. This Act exempts mainstream newspapers that subscribe to the Press Code from some of the provisions of the legislation.

The irresponsibility of the ANC in its castigation of the Press Council is breathtaking in its reliance on fiction. On several occasions it complained — and the complainant on one occasion was no less than Kgalema Motlanthe, now Deputy President — that the Press Ombudsman did not respond to its complaints. The ANC was asked to provide a list of the complaints that had been treated in that way.

Finally, after much badgering, the ANC produced one complaint. However, the party did not apologise when it was told that not only had the complaint been dealt with but that the finding was in favour of the ANC.

Some of the ANC’s ministers and leading personalities — including ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, the league’s spokesman Floyd Shivambu, Kwa-Zulu Natal Premier Dr Kweli Mkhize, and ANC Treasurer-General Dr Mathews Phosa, – are using the Press Ombudsman to voice their complaints and at least one former minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (Public Service and Administration), expressed her entire satisfaction with the manner in which her complaint had been dealt with. Even former ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte, who was so articulate in branding the Ombudsman’s office ineffectual has laid complaints and in one case a newspaper apologised to her. Even Deputy President Motlanthe has laid a complaint, though he later withdrew it. Several of these cases, and others, have resulted in rulings in favour of state institutions or ANC politicians.

In 2007 the New Zealand Press Council conducted a world wide survey and listed 87 countries with press councils. One of its major findings was that 86% of them adopted the self-regulatory method which has been adopted in South Africa. The same percentage believed the most effective punishment for newspapers when they breached professional and ethical codes was to order them to publish a correction and/or an apology with the prominence of positioning decided by the council. And 82% conducted their operations on the basis of a code and a complaints process.

South Africa’s Press Council operates in similar fashion and journalists believe that with such a large number of other Press Councils in the world adopting these standards South Africa’s current practice of dealing with breaches of ethical and professional standards appear to have majority approval among the democratic states.

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