Towards a free, responsible press

“It takes everyone out of their comfort zones.” So said Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general, in response to proposals for substantial reforms to South Africa’s system of press regulation that move the oversight of newspaper ethical standards away from pure self-regulation while rejecting the statutory controls wanted by some in the ANC.

In part because of this shared discomfort, Mantashe suggested, he felt comfortable with the principles set out by the Press Freedom Commission, an independent panel appointed by newspaper owners and editors to review the oversight of press ethics locally and examine alternatives around the world.

The commission’s recommendations include enhanced institutional ­independence for the press council, abolishing the requirement that complainants waive their right to sue in court, an expanded role for the public representatives in the system and tougher rules surrounding the prominence of apologies and retractions. These include “space fines”, which would hit errant publishers by compelling them to give up valuable editorial space.

In short, the commission addressed all the primary criticisms of the ­current system while seeking to keep the process quick, voluntary and free from political interference.

Of course, it did so against the backdrop of ANC calls to consider the establishment of statutory press regulation in the form of a media appeals tribunal, and Mantashe’s willingness to express in-principle satisfaction is an important recognition of the scale of the proposed changes.

Naturally, his satisfaction cannot be bought at the cost of a free, independent and robust press and although the proposals will provoke some anxiety in newsrooms, we think they avoid that trap. The more detailed debate around how they might be implemented, however, will be critical to ­ensuring that there are no unintended consequences.

It is important to be clear that newspapers are under no absolute ­obligation to submit to external ethical regulation. Our work is governed by the Constitution, which specifically carves out a place for “freedom of the media” within the broader right to freedom of speech. It is subject to the common law, including the law of defamation, and to statutory ­limitations that range from the classification of state secrets to the protection of children.

The self-regulatory system was created to fend off statutory controls that had been proposed by the apartheid government, and it would be easy to assume that our unwillingness to accept any kind of oversight beyond that provided by the courts and our own readers is the product of fear that the ANC will do the same.

Easy, but not quite accurate.

It is true that threats from the ruling party have forced newspapers to think harder about the quality of the system and move faster in seeking ways to address its weaknesses.

It is also important to remember that the post-apartheid press council is not a product of intimidation. Self-regulation has continued and, indeed, been strengthened since 1994, because we believe it actually strengthens our work in turn.

The voluntary adoption of a set of communal standards, rigorously overseen, is an outward manifestation of our commitment to our audiences and to our constitutional role.

Crucially, these standards must emanate from within journalism and animate it, rather than being imposed as a negative constraint by politicians angry at, and embarrassed by, what we do.
The Press Freedom Commission has sought to deepen that commitment and defend the democratic role of the press while strengthening the ­credibility of the system.

There is a great deal of important detail still to be finalised, but we should now put the idea of a statutory press commissariat behind us and get on with building a system that works.

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