A future barometer of press freedom

2011-08-20 10:55

So the revolution may not be televised, but it will happen in print. This week, the Press Council of SA released its review.

It proposes a set of changes that will make the system of print regulation more muscular and effective than it has ever been.

In a 95-page document, the Press Council sets out in a scholarly, honest and thorough manner, the history and mooted future of journalistic freedom.

It is not the first time that the arbiters of the system have engaged in introspection and it will not be the last.

However, it certainly is the most thorough study of how the system may be built for rigour in the 21st century.

The headlines are important. The Press Council has decided that the system of self-regulation is the most effective.

It has decided against imposing fines. This will not satisfy the mandarins who want journalists reined in, but read on.

The task team considered 100 press codes – 25 from Africa. A study in New Zealand found that the majority (more than 80%) of systems throughout the world were self-regulated.

There are other systems, such as state regulation, co-regulation (a blend of state and self) as well as independent regulation. The sages of our industry have decided that self-regulation is the best way to safeguard your media.

“When the state gets involved in deciding what good journalism is, drawing up a code of good practice and enforcing it, it would amount to taking the right to decide on what may or may not be published in a newspaper or magazine away from the newsroom and locating it in an external body.

It would be limiting the right to press freedom.”

It is a position with which City Press concurs, but we want to know what you think? While there is a lobby to impose fines, the task team found against doing so.

While the Danes and Indians do impose fines on errant journalists, the SA Press Council has decided not to.

It has come down to moral and peer sanction. If the Press Council’s proposals are accepted, what could happen in future is that repeat offenders will be named, a hierarchy of sanctions will be developed and published apologies will be made much more prominent.

The task team has also rewritten the Press Code and added the important introduction tying us to three maxims: to strive for truth, to avoid unnecessary harm and to act independently.

It has introduced a section on Independence and Conflicts of Interest to ensure that journalists are not swayed by commercial, political, personal or other ­non-professional considerations.

It has included a section on how we report on children. And the draft code comes down hard on chequebook journalism, which is rife.

The press ombud’s office has come in for flak for allegedly being too close to the industry. This is not true. City Press, by publishing apologies and the ombud’s findings, has proved that the system works.

We would like to believe this has made our journalism stronger and we welcome efforts to make the system even more user-friendly.

If the proposals are accepted, the system will now feature many more public officers who work for the reading public. What happens now? The Press Freedom Commission, chaired by former chief justice Pius Langa, will receive the report and consider it for the next six to eight months before making its own finding.

At the same time, Parliament, mandated by the ANC at its last national conference, will consider a media appeals tribunal.

Journalism, like politics, can be stronger. Journalism, like politics, can be more democratic.

Journalism, like politics, can be more people-centred, more rural than city, more out-there than armchair.

The SA Press Council’s efforts to improve journalism must be lauded and considered without resorting to easy rhetoric and tiresome labels.

Imagine a country without your daily and weekly diet of news. Imagine a country without our loud and raucous debates hosted largely by the media.

Imagine a country that was only exposed to one version of what was happening. Democracy is served by many voices, many versions of current affairs.

These voices are the lifeblood of democracy, one of the essential outcomes of the struggle for freedom, as Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe noted at the yearly Ruth First Lecture this week.

Speaking of the activist and journalist, Motlanthe said: “Ruth First spent her life fighting censorship. She envisaged a South Africa where freedom of expression was as essential as the air we breathe. ­Today’s democratic South Africa stands as a monument to her quest for this noble goal.

“Accordingly, we must commit never to betray these ideals, now or in the future.”

» Write to us at: letters@citypress.co.za 

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