New press code to ‘root out irresponsible journalism’

Recent modifications to the press code governing print media will improve the quality of journalism in South Africa, said press ombud, Joe Thloloe, on Monday.

“We believe if we implement the new code, we will help improve journalism in the country,” Thloloe told reporters in Johannesburg.

Of the several adjustments to the code, a new clause relating to dignity and reputation has been added.

“The press shall exercise exceptional care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, bearing in mind that any right to privacy may be overridden only by a legitimate public interest,” the clause reads.

The introduction of the clause is at a time of heightened pressure on the media, in particular the way in which private individuals are reported on.

On several occasions, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has hinted at the introduction of a media appeals tribunal to regulate the press.

Although deputy ombud, Johan Retief, said the council’s review was a normal process that it undertakes every five years. He added that the ANCs call for a media appeals tribunal (MAT) served to intensify this review, saying: “The ANCs MAT influenced us to do our work properly and with care.”

Other changes to the code include an unprecedented blanket ban on plagiarism along with a new regulation that no child under 18 years of age could be interviewed, photographed or filmed without parental or guardian consent.

Bad journalism no more
Thloloe maintains the standard of journalism is not a serious problem, but that bad reporting is on the increase, with the number of complaints received by the ombud increasing to an expected 300 for this year from 213 last year.

“It’s rather isolated. It’s not as if the South African press has gone all out to be irresponsible,” said Thloloe.

Anonymous sources were cited as another stumbling block to improving reporting in the country, with Tholoe saying it is a “huge headache”.

“Many a journalist use this as a fig leaf to try and cover up irresponsible journalism,” he said.

Two further clauses in the code stipulate that anonymous sources are only to be used when there is no alternative way to report the story.

The code will come into force on October 15, while any grievances laid by the public before that date still being subject to the old code.

An earlier version of this article stated that Deputy Ombud Johan Retief said the changes to the code were “influenced” by the ANC’s calls for a tribunal. This is incorrect. He, in fact, said the Councils review was a normal process that the Council undertakes every five years. He added that the ANCs call for a media appeals tribunal (MAT) served to intensify this review, saying: “The ANCs MAT influenced us to do our work properly and with care.”

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