Make the press ombudsman more transparent and accountable to the public rather than impose a media tribunal in the form proposed by the African National Congress, a senior MP of the party has argued.
ANC MP Ben Turok angrily denounced the media for being “irresponsible” and “irritating” during an M&G Critical Thinking Forum debate on media freedom in Cape Town on Wednesday, but said he agreed the Protection of Information Bill “goes too far” and that the proposed media appeals tribunal was not the solution.
“Suggestions that ANC is a one-party state that is overwhelmingly in favour” of the tribunal were not true, he said, adding that some colleagues in the ANC agreed with him that the solution lay in beefing up the ombud, the media’s self-regulating mechanism.
Turok argued, in apparent answer to ANC perceptions that the ombud as a creation of the media could not be impartial, that ombud itself could be turned into “a public entity” through transparency and greater public representation.
Press ombudsman Joe Thloloe on Thursday said the process was already transparent — details of matters heard were available on the website and members of the public were free to attend hearings, although in practice this was not common.
The press appeals panel, which handles appeals from the ombud, is headed by a retired judge assisted by public and press representatives.
South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) chairperson Mondli Makanya said during the debate that he took no comfort from Turok’s assurance that the ANC was not homogenous in its thinking on the tribunal.
When Thabo Mbeki as president pursued Aids denialist policies there were people in the ANC who disagreed, but it did not stop the unnecessary deaths. “The ANC is heading down the wrong road,” he said.
Makanya said he believed the tribunal would ultimately be averted, if necessary through a Constitutional Court challenge, but he was worried about the damage done along the way. “We will have wasted so much capital,” he said, including goodwill generated by the Soccer World Cup.
Leftist commentator Mazibuko Jara argued that media freedom equated with “the freedom of [media] owners to publish what they want” but said that “after 16 years [of freedom] I find it disingenuous to suddenly discover the profit motive of the media”. President Jacob Zuma recently weighed in in favour of the media tribunal, saying among other things that “press freedom and the like are noble principles, but we all know that what drives the media is money, like all businesses”.
Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes said the debate about commercialisation was “a bit of a straw person”. He cited examples in the United States where journalistic standards had dropped because of the financial squeeze on papers. Turning the argument on its head, he said tighter state control of the media in South Africa would in fact be “a boon for owners”, who knew that investigative reporting — the apparent target of the intended clampdown — “isn’t making us money”.
The M&G was a case in point, he said. As an investigative paper, it remained “a [financial] minion on the media landscape”.