Fines on the cards for errant newspapers

A new regulatory regime is imminent for South Africa’s newspapers and there is a strong likelihood that independent policing will replace industry self-regulation and fines will be introduced for publications that make serious mistakes.

The Mail & Guardian understands that these are some of the recommendations of the Press Freedom Commission inquiry into the regulation of the press.

The commission’s 130-page report is scheduled to be released on April 25.

An independent body of nine commissioners from different sectors of society, headed by former Chief Justice Pius Langa, the commission was mandated by Print Media South Africa and the South African National Editors’ Forum to shape a regulatory system acceptable to all South Africans.

Its recommendations are, therefore, likely to be implemented.

The commission began work in July last year, conducting hearings around South Africa and visiting India, Denmark, Tanzania and the United Kingdom as part of its research.

In January and February, it staged public hearings at which the ANC, editors and media-freedom activists made oral submissions.

The commission’s findings will be handed over to Print Media South Africa and the editors’ forum at a public launch at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.

Through an interview with commissioner Phil Mtimkulu and other insiders, the Mail & Guardian has put together a picture of the report’s scope and main recommendations.

It is understood to recommend that the current self-regulatory system, funded by the industry, should change to one of “independent regulation”.

But it remains unclear how an independent adjudication panel would be funded or its members selected.

Mtimkulu also revealed that the commission had examined the existing “waiver system”, in terms of which many complaints cannot be taken to court once they are submitted to the Press Council’s adjudication.

The commission is understood to have recommended that this be scrapped.

Mtimkulu said the report focused on the ways of reporting about children in the press and it is understood that it will propose stronger restrictions in this regard.

He said a key issue scrutinised by the commission was “the representation of the public in the adjudication structure”.

It appears that the commission’s views will result in the inclusion of more members of the public and few — if any — journalists on the appeals panel.

Also placed under scrutiny were complaints that the press ombudsman was “toothless” and there were no sanctions for offenders.

The ANC and the South African Communist Party, in particular, are dissatisfied with existing provisions whereby newspapers can be required to publish apologies.

The commission is understood to recommend that the adjudication panel have the power to impose fines on offending newspapers.

Mtimkulu said the ­commission had also examined the thorny question of how to regulate digital ­publishing and whether media ownership was excessively concentrated.

Insiders hinted that the ­commission had accepted the view that ownership should be further diversified.

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