Media self-regulation is ideal

The most remarkable thing about the ANC’s input at hearings of the Press Freedom Commission this week was not its determination to create a media appeals tribunal, but the fact that it participated at all.

It was an important step forward, given that the party had previously decried the futility of the commission’s work in reviewing press regulation. Even their little argument with former chief justice Pius Langa about the independence of Parliament was instructive. It is called dialogue.

Also worthy of attention were the starkly divergent contributions of some of the most powerful women in our society: the ANC’s head of communications, Jessie Duarte, and the Independent Electoral Commission chair and African Union rapporteur on freedom of expression, Pansy Tlakula.

Public protector Thuli Madonsela’s presentation was a carefully researched argument for self-regulation and a thorough critique of its present deficiencies. Her proposed remedies included that the system be more proactive than reactive, that the office of the ombudsman be separated from the Press Council and that it introduce more effective and binding sanctions.

Tlakula, speaking in her AU capacity, gave a warning about the damage she had seen done elsewhere on the continent by statutory regulation and the risk that South Africa might set a poor precedent for Africa. Duarte and the ANC delegation, by contrast, made broad claims about standards, ­ideology and transformation, unsupported by any data. Despite efforts to fudge the debate Duarte made it clear the ANC had made up its mind to do away with self-regulation and replace it with what it calls “independent” regulation and parliamentary oversight.

The Mail & Guardian’s view is that this approach will lead directly to political controls and that an improved system of voluntary self-regulation, which draws on credible people from outside the media business to help police ethical standards, is the right solution for South Africa. For those who smell self-interest in the insistence of editors and publishers that self-regulation is the democratic gold standard, it is worth listening to people like Madonsela and Tlakula who have neither economic nor personal motives for supporting a free press. This debate is only going to get tougher. We will be making a noise about it all year and we hope you will join us.

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