The report, released in April, followed a lengthy public consultation process presided over by Justice Pius Langa, who received hundreds of submissions from the public.
It recommended a system of independent co-regulation without government involvement, as well as the physical separation of the Press Council of South Africa from other media organisations and the use of “space fines”, whereby newspapers would forfeit advertising space and revenue, and publish apologies for errors they had made.
University of South Africa lecturer and media analyst Julie Reid, speaking at the event held at Wits University on Friday, said although the changes that have been suggested have been described as “sweeping” she didn’t believe they would be.
Reid said the Press Freedom Commission report is “a very cleverly worded document” that seems to be selling a system very different to the one that currently exists but in practical terms, very little would change in terms of how the Press Council of South Africa operates.
“If we compare [the changes] closely to the old Constitution and complaints procedure of the Press Council of South Africa you’re going to find in practice that things haven’t actually changed that much,” she said.
Reid said that although the media was naturally critical of the report that had come out of the process, it should not dismiss it.
“If we dismiss it as cheap political compromise the entire process of the Press Freedom Council will be in vain, it will be useless,” she said.
The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) chair Mondli Makhanya, speaking in his personal capacity, welcomed the suggestions saying that the regulatory system needed not only to be credible but also to be seen to be credible.
Makhanya said the “propaganda and relentless bashing” of the media self regulation by government and other sectors of society had taken its toll and that sooner or later there would have been “much more vicious attacks”.
“I believe the system that we have now, of independent co-regulation, is an answer to that system. It gives the public a greater voice in the regulation system and improves access to the regulation system,” he said.
Makhanya also said he thought the ANC’s overwhelmingly positive response to the report, even though it does not differ greatly from existing press regulations, shows that some within the party are looking for a way to back down from discussions about the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal.
He dismissed allegations that the sector is untransformed and lacked diversity.
“Newsrooms today are very different to how they were 15 years ago, in terms of gender and race. Transformation has happened. This drum that keeps getting beaten about the “white media”, it’s absolute nonsense. You have only to scan the bylines of any daily newspaper and [evidence of transformation] is there,” he said.
Makhanya added that it was essential that the people elected to the council were strong and capable.
“We need to make sure the people on the council are extremely strong people … and that they realise their duty is not merely to block people and punish the media but to create a strong system of accountability,” he said.
Wits University journalism professor Franz Kruger, complained that the commission had not dealt with the perception that journalists in the country were “corrupt and irretrievably rotten”.
Kruger said these perceptions were driven by political campaign and were part of a sustained attempt to paint the media in a particular light.
“We need to be realistic and understand that unless we deal with what’s behind these perceptions, [they] will be back and the campaign will be back,” he said.
Avusa Group ombud Joe Latakgomo said processes like the commission were short-term responses to long-standing tensions between state and media – a situation that has existed for decades and is not unique to South Africa.
He said that the media would always have to operate with “a sword hanging over [it]”.
Influencing the press
Reid agreed with this assessment. “Governments and big business will always try to influence the press. We have to get used to that state of existence and not get hysterical,” she said.
But, she said, it was important to recognize that the debates over press regulation now being heard had less to do with poor journalistic practice.
“We’re not having these debates now because of newspapers that got it wrong. We’re having it because of all the really brave and courageous journalists who go it right,” she said.
William Bird, executive director of press watchdog Media Monitoring Africa acknowledged the process to develop the Press Freedom Commission report had been a transparent one.
He said that any new system of regulation would need to be fast, accessible, efficient and cost effective, and that, crucially, it should minimise harm. “Without those things, you might as well go to the courts [to resolve conflicts],” he said.
Dignity of children
Bird also commended the move towards stronger regulations for protecting the rights and dignity of children as reported on in the media suggested by the report.
He criticised the Daily Sun for its handling last month of the story of the gang rape of a 17-year-old Braamfischerville girl.
Unbeknown to Bird, the Daily Sun‘s deputy editor Ben Viljoen was seated in the audience. He argued that a recent Sun story, concerning a group of teenaged boys who had molested a group of preschoolers had received little attention from the public because the paper had opted to keep the details out of the story.
He argued that the paper’s treatment of the Braamfischerville gang rape – deemed questionable from an ethics perspective – had opened a national dialogue on rape, children and digital media.
The Daily Sun has argued that, although contrary to media ethics and the law, it revealed the girl’s identity in the public interest.
Bird countered that it would have been possible to report on the story without revealing salacious details which, he said, have made it impossible for the teenager to return to the community in which she lived. According to Bird, the girl now resides in a place of care.