Overhaul of self-regulation on the cards

In a clear response to the threat of a statutory media appeals tribunal, the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) is setting up an “eminent persons’ panel” to investigate ways to strengthen and reform the print media’s self-regulation system.

Self-regulation is at the heart of the hostility between the print media and the ANC-led government, which wants the media to be “more accountable” and to go beyond the apologies it makes for its mistakes. But statutory regulation is generally regarded as having a chilling effect on media freedom.

Sanef has just created a commission to examine international best practice on self-regulation. This commission is setting up an eminent persons’ panel that will probably consist mainly of retired judges.

Journalists and politicians will not be on the panel, Sanef chair Mondli Makhanya confirmed.

Press ombud Joe Thloloe said this week a report had been compiled following public hearings on media self-regulation that were organised by the Press Council. The report will now be handed over to the constituent associations of the Press Council — the Newspaper Association of SA, the Magazine Publishers Association, the Association of Independent Publishers, the Forum of Community Journalists and Sanef.

The panel move follows the ANC’s decision to forge ahead with its policy decision, taken in Polokwane in December 2007, to investigate a statutory media appeals tribunal.

It also comes against the backdrop of Parliament’s processing of the controversial Protection of Information Bill, informally known as the “Secrecy Bill”. 

William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, said this week the regulatory system should be “affordable, speedy, accessible and fair. We don’t see how it could work under a tribunal system.”

He said a distinction had to be drawn between a system that corrected the media’s errors, and regulation and external interference. “The idea of an eminent persons’ panel may help address the issue of media credibility, which I think we must accept is a huge problem.”

Media Monitoring Africa made a substantive submission to the Press Council that argued for a self-regulatory system, although it said the present model could be improved. Listing the shortcomings of the current system, it said:

  • There was a lack of knowledge both in the media and among the public about the press code and self-regulation;
  • The system for enforcing the ombud’s decisions was open to question;
  • There were questions about -complainants’ waiver of the right to legal action and the relief granted to successful complainants; and
  • There were issues relating to procedure and transparency.

Media Monitoring Africa submitted that the procedure used for the appointment of members of the Press Council and the appeals panel “is insufficient to safeguard the independence of the ombudsman and appeals panel from the media industry they regulate, and raises the possibility of undue influence by the media industry”.

And because press representatives were simply appointed by the constituent associations, “there are no procedural checks in place to ensure the suitability of these members”.

The ANC has expressed particular concern about the ombud’s lack of “teeth”, complaining on numerous occasions that the scale of apologies does not match the media’s mistakes.

Media Monitoring Africa submitted that there was “force in the argument that the available penalties are at times unsatisfactory in addressing the violation”.

It argued, however, that fines for errors “tend to be punitive and do not constructively contribute to the development of a responsible media”.

Fines could be mere annoyances to larger media companies but put smaller newspapers out of business, Media Monitoring Africa said. It argued also that fines resulted in a “zero sum” approach because no one benefited from this type of penalty.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre’s. www.amabhungane.co.za.

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Glenda Daniels
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