Press Freedom Commission report welcomed

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has welcomed the principles embodied in a report released by the Press Freedom Commission (PFC).

The PFC was launched in July 2011 to look at the current press regulatory system and create a better model through public consultation. It released its recommendations at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

Mantashe said the recommendations “put independence to regulation” and planned to send copies to all the branches of his party so further deliberation could occur. “The principles embodied here give us what we think is legitimate regulation of the media,” he said.

This is in line with the call for “independent regulation“that he made when the ANC gave its submission to the PFC’s ‘Listening to South Africa’ hearings.

The members of the PFC — a panel of nine people, headed by former chief justice Pius Langa — emphasised that their proposal is for a “system of co-regulation between the press and the public, with the public having the upper hand”.

After sifting through 230 submissions and travelling to countries like Tanzania and Denmark the PFC has created a “gold standard”, it announced.

Professor Kobus van Rooyen, a member of the PFC, said the recommendations “have created something new and moved us further than any system I could find”.

The main aim of the recommendations is to create a “regulator which is not going to decide on the conduct of the press, but rather on their wrongdoings”, said Professor Kwame Karikari, the director of the Media Foundation for West Africa and PFC member.

By extracting the main complaints from the public submissions, Langa said, “We believe that we have addressed all the complaints.”

The biggest move is the public representation on the Press Council of South Africa (PCSA). It will be composed of seven members of the public and five members of the media, with half of the panel.

An “appointments panel” will check people who apply for the positions, and provision has been made for a retired judge to head this.

All appeals will be heard by at least three members of the public and one member of the press.

Another recommendation of the PFC is “space fines” to be levied where a publications content was found to be breaking parts of the regulations. This would allow the press ombud to declare where, and how large a correction, apology, or right of reply should be.

For members that repeatedly ignore judgments, a hierarchy of punishments was suggested. The “most serious” sanctions would be fines, suspensions and expulsion from the PCSA, said Langa. He said it would work because, “I dont think any institution would exactly want to be suspended or excluded from this jurisdiction of the council”.

Hoosain Karjieker, president of Print Media South Africa, said the “implementations and recommendations [of the PFC report] will take place over the next few weeks” and budgets have already been “set aside”.

Mondli Makhanya, chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum, said the recommendations were a “radical departure” from the way print media had regulated itself in the past but that because journalists had “shortcomings”, there is a need for “strong accountability mechanisms”.

Dr Wilmot James, the DAs spokesperson of trade and industry, said his party “welcomes the report as it empowers democracy”.

Other recommendations include

  • Members of the public should be allowed into newsrooms to see what happens.
  • The controversial waiver should be scrapped.
  • Journalists need to be tested on their knowledge of the press code.
  • A discussion must begin with the Digital Media and Marketing Association on how to extend regulation to the digital sector
  • Hate speech is now included in the text of the code, not the preamble.
  • Children must be reported on holistically, not just as victims. All the loopholes for journalists to claim ignorance when working with the ethical issues of reporting on children have also been closed.
  • A public advocate can now initiate complaints, as well as third parties in line with section 38 of the Constitution.
  • The right of reply can only be ignored if the person is not available or unwilling to respond.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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