Freedom of expression jostles for space uncomfortably in our climate of dealing – for the first time in the open – with the pain of race, class and gender humiliation two decades after apartheid fell.
In this crazy and obnoxious climate where black feminists are vilified as “bitches” for announcing their status on Twitter when using the hashtags #PatriarchyMustFall and #ForBlackGirlsOnly, no one yet has the answers about how to deal with trolls and haters on social media.
But a new media code, which replaces South Africa’s press code, regulates how journalists (all sorts, including content producers) can use social media.
Amid the chaos and drama of freedom of expression debates and lawsuits, as well as race and gender hate speech, the new code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media came into force this year.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau South Africa (representing all major online publishers), the South African National Editors’ Forum and the Press Council got together last year and, moving purposefully like a stealthy cat, engaged in hectic debates, negotiations, drafts and redrafts, and Skypes, with a panel discussion here and there, until there was agreement on the revamped Press Council and the new code.
It now applies to all published material in newspapers and magazines and on their websites, including audio and video streams, digital sites and smartphone applications with news content or commentary.
Publishers and editors are now responsible for compliance with the provisions of the code.
It is of huge significance for many reasons.
First, it is the first code that encompasses digital and online media, including user-generated texts, as well as print. Hopefully it will soon bring in the broadcast media, which is governed by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA).
The new code is built on the foundations of the Press Council’s press code, which has gone from strength to strength since the Press Freedom Commission under Judge Pius Langa in 2011, according to independent research by the Media Policy and Democracy Project, led by Julie Reid, a senior lecturer at Unisa.
The project’s findings were published last year in a report titled Press Regulation in South Africa: An Analysis of the Press Council of South Africa, the Press Freedom Commission and Related Discourses.
The report found:
• There is no need for a media appeals tribunal, as proposed by the ANC, whose arguments were found to be weak;
• There is no evidence to suggest that the BCCSA is more independent than the Press Council;
• The Press Council is not biased in favour of the print media; in fact, 58% of its rulings were made in favour of complainants;
• Most complaints came from business and the private sector, although political parties, and mainly the ANC, made the most noises about the media;
• Since the public hearings on press regulation in 2011 and vociferous dissatisfaction by the ANC about apologies being hidden inside newspapers, there will now be more substantial apologies in prominent places, such as on front pages; and
• There was 100% compliance by newspapers when it came to apologies.
These findings show that co-regulation has been strengthened, and it has not necessarily favoured the press.
The expectation is that the new code will build on the success of the Press Code, which was revamped in 2012.
So, what are the significant issues for the new code to address? It will be fascinating to see how it affects online and social media, and in particular how it relates to freedom of expression and hate speech, which are dealt with in the Constitution.
According to the Bill of Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the media, freedom to receive and impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity, and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
But this right does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.
Editors generally tell their journalists not to say anything on social media that they would not say in the traditional media – in other words, on radio and television and in newspapers. The new code should help them to flesh this policy out.
A related issue in an election year is the question of journalists belonging to political parties. Some argue that journalists, like all other people, may be subjective in their views but it would be unconstitutional to ban them from belonging to political parties.
The new code steers a middle path by not banning anything, but it does stipulate that “the media shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other nonprofessional considerations to influence or slant reporting”.
It goes on to say: “Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism.”
Members of the public and newsrooms themselves have paid scant attention to the new code. It’s worthwhile, however, for South Africans to follow the guidelines when we get angry and want to vent publicly about race and gender issues.
Freedom of expression is an important principle of our Constitution and one that media freedom activists hold dear, but it cannot be an excuse to air hatred. The code is watching. It’s sufficiently Big Brother for journalists; we don’t need more than this. But what about the haters on social media?
Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at Wits University