Press regulation debate heads for Parliament

2012-02-01 07:31

The second day of the Press Freedom Commission’s public hearings in Johannesburg promised much given that ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was lined up to talk. The ruling party cut an imposing posse with Mantashe flanked by ANC NEC member Jessie Duarte, and party spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.

Mantashe didn’t say much because Duarte delivered most of the submission and for the most part the song remained the same as the party reiterated its call for a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT).

However, the ANC said that a public enquiry should be held to investigate the existing self-regulatory mechanism and to consider structural, funding, governance and capacity issues regarding the Press Ombudsman.

The place for such a debate, the ANC said, was in Parliament “which should explore the possibility of establishing an independent statutory appeals mechanism, which is not a pre-publication censorship, which should complement and strengthen the Press Ombudsman within the framework of the Constitution of the Republic,” the party’s submission read.

“The composition of such an independent body must be arrived at through a parliamentary enquiry,” Jackson Mthembu told the commission.

“We are emphasising one point – that such a body should not have vested interest either in politics, in commercial or even in the media establishment itself,” he stressed.

The current system of self-regulation was a no-go, according to the ANC. “With the Press Council and ombudsman, the assumption is always the same and the publication just withdraws the story and apologises, immaterial of the severity,” Mthembu said.

Media24, represented at the public hearings by City Press editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee, countered this with the statement that self-regulation was the way to go.

Haffajee said state regulation couldn’t even be considered, and that self-regulation set the standards for improved journalism, ethics and values.

She said that alarms bells sounded for her, clearly signalling the threat to SA’s world class constitutional freedoms, when she heard the ANC talk about a parliamentary investigation into a press tribunal.

“We believe that any state involvement in regulation will have a chilling effect. I’d be lying to you if I said that in the past 18 months I haven’t begun to feel those chilled winds already,” Haffajee said.

Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes pointed out that South Africa has a broad set of institutions that hold the press accountable, and that – apart from the Press Council and ombudsman – these included the courts, Chapter 9 institutions, and the market where consumers could choose to buy or ignore news titles.

Dawes added that a vocal and robust social media space was increasingly putting editors and media owners under pressure.

Dawes acceded that the self-regulatory system needed attention but solidly refuted that it needed to be replaced or “subject to the supererogatory powers of a statutory body with bogus independence conferred by Parliament”.

If the ANC delegation stayed long enough to hear Media Monitoring Africa’s submission (Mantashe, Duarte and Jackson left after presenting the party’s submission), they’d have heard empirical evidence that the press had improved during recent years.

MMA’s William Bird cited research which proved recent press advancements, added that the press moreover got things right, and stated that forms of regulation other than self-regulation could harm ethics and quality in print media.

Today is the last day of the Press Freedom Commission’s public hearings in Johannesburg, and Public Protector Thuli Madonsela will present, as will the Freedom Front Plus’s Anton Alberts, Lance Greyling of the Independent Democrats and Professor Tawana Kupe of Wits University.

The hearings take place at the Braamfontein Recreation Centre, Corner Harrison and Juta streets, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until 6pm.

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