Press Council needs to be jacked up

2011-03-05 17:02

The press is “arrogant”, ignorant of the harm it does to ordinary individuals, all powerful and a law unto itself, a handful of members of the public have told SA Press Council hearings over the past two weeks.

The hearings were held in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Durban. Members of the public and civic organisations also questioned why editors were absent from the hearings, as did Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe and his team.

The hearings ended in Durban on the same note as they had begun in Johannesburg two weeks earlier – not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The kick-off in Johannesburg saw a dearth of public representation, a fair show of journalists and some civic-sector interest. It also delivered a room with no mobile or internet access and saw journalists scurrying around to try to file stories or Tweet, and having to exit the room in a bid to find internet access.

The hearings ended in Durban with the ombudsman and his team facing two members of the public; a lot better than Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, where on some days the council sat in empty halls.

Those members of the public who did participate made some solid ­recommendations.

In Durban, George Moloko, a legal student, told how he tried to help four teachers accused of sexual misconduct at a local school.

“The press was judge, jury and executioner and even after the teachers were acquitted, an editorial in a local newspaper said the matter was not over and that the press would keep an eye on them.

“The result is that these teachers’ lives have been ruined. Two teachers were transferred, but the schools they were sent to would not take them. One teacher was called a ‘sex maniac’ when he was sent to a new school.”

Moloko said he had petitioned the newspapers in question but they had failed to engage with the teachers. The student said he tried to engage the Press Council, but his complaint was not attended to because it was filed too late.

Thloloe said he was unaware of Moloko’s efforts and said the legal proceedings that had caused the delay between the original press stories and Moloko’s complaint could have been a mitigating factor.
“We do make special allowances in instances like this and will certainly look at your complaint,” the ombudsman said.
In Bloemfontein journalist Carmel Rickard bemoaned the fact that rural stories were neglected.

Rickard said because of this, corruption had become a mainstay in rural areas of Free State, where crooked officials operated with impunity because the Fourth Estate ignored them.

The issue of the right of waiver came up again and again as civic organisations and members of the public questioned why individuals had to sign away their right to legal representation to a Press Council that did not have teeth and effectively gave the press a mere slap on the wrist.
Often the public had no other recourse because, as Moloko put it, “the courts are the recourse of the rich. If you have been defamed you need at least R100?000 to begin looking at getting a hearing in the high courts”.

Suggestions on how to improve the Press Council were made by NGOs Media Monitoring Africa, the Freedom of Expression Institute, Rhodes University, Wits and a wide range of other civic and learning organisations.

They called for the council to have greater independence, to be more proactive and to actively lobby and educate South Africa on its role and the Press Code.

The call that was made most frequently was for the council to be given teeth and for it to analyse complaints so that it could help the press learn from its mistakes so that the same offences were not committed again and again.
The council will deliberate on these submissions behind closed doors and inform the public,
media activists and civic organisations of what changes it will make later this year.

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