Regulating SA's media: Lessons from abroad

In the United Kingdom, a self regulatory system protects both the public and the media and strident action can be taken against journalists who breach the commission’s code.

In Ghana, the Constitution forbids censorship of the media and gives the media absolute freedom.

These were some of the models of regulation discussed on Wednesday at a conference held at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, addressing the roles and responsibilities of Africa’s media.

The lessons from other countries comes against the backdrop of the proposed Protection of Information Bill in South Africa, which critics have said poses a threat to media freedom in the country.

Speaking at a session at the two-day conference on the topic of models of regulation, Wits professor Franz Kruger, a member of the Press Appeals Panel, said that “the misconception is that self regulation is an extreme, whereas the extreme would be having no methods of regulation”. South Africa wants to follow self regulation methods that are similar to those seen in countries that consider themselves democracies.

Professor Ian Walden, a member of the Press Complaints Commission in the UK, argued that self regulation is a viable form of devising regulation in the press. The aims of the commission are to provide legislation that protects both the public and the media in a manner that is fast, free and fair. In 2010, alone, the commission handled about 7 000 complaints. Even though each individual claim is not instantly resolved, the commission has found that people have responded positively because they believe that their issues are being addressed and the process is handled with transparency.

The UK Press Complaints Commission offers a self regulation code that is drafted by editors, for editors and journalists. Its key issues are accuracy and privacy—for example, the protection of victims of abuse or grief. One of the consequences of breaching the code is serious disciplinary action. However, he added, the code is not an arbiter of moral standards, where issues of decency and taste are to be decided.

Walden said in the controversial incident where British journalists were caught hacking into the cellphones of celebrities and accessing their messages, there were concerns by the British public that further actions should have been taken rather than just punishment for breaching the code. However Walden explained that the commission does not include investigative work—which they believe is the responsibility of the police. “However, pre-publication involvement can be handled where problematic content can be withdrawn, prior to publication,” he said.

According to George Sarpong, the executive secretary of the National Media Commission in Ghana, Ghanaians believe that government should have no hand in matters of media legislation and policy. “Bad legislation does not produce better journalism,” he said. As a result, their new Constitution forbids censorship.

The biggest concern is when regulation is established by the law and self regulation can become subject to government control. In Ghana, for example, for more than 10 years, political unrest saw power being shifted between regimes as a result of coups d’etat and each government implementing their own legislation that restricted media freedom.

The 1992 Ghanaian constitution established the freedom and independence of the media; censorship was removed and no impediments where to be made to the establishment of private media. Since then, said Sarpong, the Constitutional Review Commission has discovered that the primary concern of the educated elite, who had championed media freedom, is that there is too much media freedom and there is a desire to curtail it.

South Africa’s challenges
Currently the proposed South African Protection of Information Bill is undergoing various stages of drafting and redrafting with agents and organizations that want to perpetuate media freedom threatening to take it to the Constitutional Court. If implemented it will give government the power to classify certain information as “private” and deem it illegal for the press to publicise it.

Listen to the keynote address at the conference by former Constitutional Judge Kate O’Regan here

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