Regulations will 'make journalism stronger'

2012-10-03 20:35
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Johannesburg - Changes to the SA Press Code were intended to strengthen journalism in South African, Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe said on Wednesday.

"The Press Council and the print industry believe that this strengthened system will promote and develop ethical practices in journalism," Thloloe said at the formal release of the SA Press Code in Johannesburg.

The code is formulated by the Press Council. Complaints based on it against the media are taken to the Office of the Press Ombudsman for adjudication.

While the text of the present code was unchanged, three appendixes were added and would take effect from January 1 next year.

The system would move from self-regulation to a "voluntary independent co-regulatory system" with a 13-person Press Council to be chaired by a retired judge, with six representatives from the press and six from the public outside the industry.

This meant that a majority of the council would be from outside the industry.

Staff numbers at the Press Council would be "beefed up", with a director and a public advocate to be hired.

Thloloe said the public advocate would be responsible for "championing" complaints through the ombudsman process. He or she would also be able to initiate complaints if a publication was believed to have transgressed the code.

Third-party complaints would be allowed under the amended code.

In a major change, a legal waiver to be signed by complainants before seeking relief from the Press Ombudsman had been done away with.

Under the existing code, complainants had to waive their right to legal action before the Press Ombudsman could begin work.

Press Council chairperson Raymond Louw said this was done due to the reservations of media houses, who feared they would now be subjected to two processes.

They were also worried that information they gave in an ombudsman hearing could later be used against them in a court room.

Louw and Thloloe said because of these concerns, the waiver would be in place for a year before being reviewed.

Thloloe said seeking legal representation for the complaints process would be discouraged. This was to stop a legal "arms race" where parties continually sought more and better representation for their cases.

Publications found to be offending would be told how to issue corrections. If they refused, they could incur financial penalties or expulsion from the Press Council.

Findings by the Press Ombudsman would be handed down within 21 days of a hearing. Thloloe said this would be possible because of the increased staff and new processes.

Ticking the boxes

SA National Editor's Forum chairperson Mondli Makhanya said the new code would be important to maintaining media credibility.

"A system must not only be credible, it must be seen as credible," Makhanya said.

He said many of the mistakes made by journalists that warranted penalties were not due to inaccuracy, but involved "ticking the boxes" of journalistic procedure.

Correcting these errors, and being above reproach, was important to protect journalists from those in South Africa who opposed media freedom.

"We must make sure we do not do anything to put weapons in their hands," Makhanya said.

Thloloe said changes to the SA Press Code were not an appeasement to the African National Congress, although criticisms made by the party, and sections of civil society, were considered.

He said the ANC's threat to initiate a statutory media appeals tribunal was part of the context of discussions on additions to the code.

However, the changes were ultimately for the sake of South African journalism.

"The decisions we took were simply because they were in the best interest of journalism, not because we wanted to appease any political party," Thloloe said.

The revisions were part of a regular process that took place every five years.

"We had to take the criticism[s] into account and ask if they are worthwhile or just wild political statements," Thloloe said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance (DA) echoed Thloloe's assertion that the new regulations would strengthen journalism in the country.

"The DA welcomes the new set of press regulations released earlier today.

On the whole, we believe that these new regulations will ultimately strengthen the independence of the media by improving the quality and credibility of journalism," said DA national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane in a statement.

The DA said that it in particular supported the addition of more staff - a director and public advocate - at the Press Council, the reconfirmation of the existing code of conduct and the speeding up of the finalisation of complaints.

"As a package, these new regulations will increase the general level of credibility of the press. They will make the PCSA’s processes more transparent and will strengthen public input into the system," Maimane said.

Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  sanef  |  mmusi maimane  |  joe thloloe  |  mondli makhanya  |  media

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