Press code needs punch

2011-02-04 09:03

On the eve of the ANC national general council in September last year, the Press Council started a public process to review its constitution and the press code, but it did not provoke any significant public debate as media attention remained focused on the ANC.

The failure to ignite public interest can possibly be attributed to the limited resources allocated to the Press Council and the general failure of the print media houses to volunteer space for visible advertisements.

As a result, the adverts issued failed to outline the process to be followed; an omission that can only be salvaged by holding public hearings to allow interested parties to express their views, in addition to written submissions.

Despite the lacklustre consultation process, a strong print media self-regulatory system remains a significant national priority, given the power and influence of the media in society.

The unfolding debate on self-regulation should be underpinned by a desire to protect press freedom while promoting the rights of citizens, consistent with the Constitution of the country.

The current appointment procedures for the members of the public on the Press Council should be retained, as the chief justice is best placed to manage a credible process. However, to enhance transparency the constitution of the press council should provide for compulsory public interviews.

The constitution should also spell out the delineation of power and responsibilities between the Press Council, the Press Ombudsman and appeal mechanisms.

The Press Council should periodically review the press constitution and code (subject to public consultation), establish panels to appoint the ombudsman and its appeal institutions,and oversee financial matters of the press ombudsman to ensure accountability.

The Press Om­buds­­man should handle all cases without fear or favour and issue decisions that bind parties, unless its conclusions are taken on appeal, in which case the appeal bodies should undertake reviews without any interference from any interest.

Currently the funding framework of the ombudsman, which is determined by Print Media SA, is not suitable for credible independent regulation.

This can be alleviated by the introduction of a cost recovery model where the ombudsman is funded based on its requirements.

In this arrangement, a regulator determines its financial needs, which in turn inform the contributions from its key sources.

While approaches such as these are generally aimed at public-sector regulators, South Africa can set a trend by introducing the same funding formula to ensure that self-regulatory institutions are not muzzled by their financial sources.

The constitution of the Press Council should set a framework within which the ombudsman defines its budgetary requirements over a cycle of three years to enable effective planning.

A renewed funding arrangement would enhance the independence of self-regulation and also improve efficiency and turnaround times.

Participants in the ongoing public debate have also expressed concern about the remedies imposed by existing print media self-regulatory institutions. In many cases, retractions by the media do not enjoy the same prominence as offending articles.

Until this anomaly is rectified in the press codes, the debate and concerns around the effectiveness of the current self-regulatory system will continue unabated.

As a further endeavour to strengthen self-regulation, Consideration should be made to allow the ombudsman to impose financial remedies equivalent to those that are imposed by the courts in defamation cases.

Without this, the ombudsman will remain a toothless body incapable of performing its foremost task of protecting citizens against poor journalism when it rears its head.

These requirements should apply to media houses, while journalists should be protected from any form of recourse.

A strong self-regulatory mechanism will spur on the media to invest in the training of journalists and undertake tangible measures to promote quality journalism.

Nothing in the proposed reconfiguration of self-regulation and its appeal bodies should deny citizens their right to approach the courts should they prefer that option. Rather self-regulation should be used as a complementary intervention to help the citizens who opt for a less costly route, without abrogating their constitutional rights.

» Nkuna is a media and ICT policy specialist based in Johannesburg

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