Press regulation could affect future digital freedoms

2012-01-31 07:16

The Press Freedom Commission’s public hearings kicked off in Johannesburg yesterday with a firm warning for future digital freedoms from Jane Duncan, Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.

Duncan warned that if statutory regulation won and a state media tribunal was established it would have far-reaching consequences when converged media was up for regulatory review.

Duncan said that government regulation of the press through a Media Appeals Tribunal or similar construct would be disastrous for democracy because it would engender “state control, could see the possible licensing of journalists and could be costly for the taxpayer”.

Other disadvantages of state regulation would be a slow system and inappropriate appointments of government officials.

The “Listening to South Africa” campaign convened by the Press Freedom Commission had already heard submissions on press regulation from the likes of Cosatu, the IFP and the SA Council of Churches in public meetings in Durban and Cape Town.

Johannesburg saw the DA, Human Rights Commission, Rhodes University and PAC offer input on press regulatory structures to the Press Freedom Commission which was founded by Print Media SA and the SA National Editors’ Forum to stave off threats to press freedom.

Like many of the political parties, civic organisations and lobbyists before her, Duncan took aim at the efficacy of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman, saying that the current system of self-regulation was anything by effective.

“The (Press) Council should publish a ladder of intervention outlining the sanctions prescribed for a particular level of offence,” Duncan told Press Freedom Commission commissioners present, including Justice Pius Langa, Santie Botha, Busa’s Futhi Mtoba and Professor Kobus van Rooyen, the chair of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA. Also on hand, and lending the panel Pan-African gravitas, was Professor Kwame Karikari, director of the Media Foundation for West Africa.

“The council should have the power to issue fines in the case of extreme and repeated transgressions of the code,” said Duncan, adding: “Fines will be graded according to the level of seriousness of the offence in terms of a ladder of intervention, and agreed to by all council members on an upfront basis.”

Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi, who was speaking in an individual capacity, said plagiarism was a problem for journalistic credibility and trust.

Mthombothi said the current press code didn’t deal with plagiarism adequately, nor was the code well defined in this regard.

The SA Human Rights Commission (HRC) spoke about the “watchdog” role the media played and stated that in defending democracy tension would naturally arise between the press and the government, adding that it was not something that the rights commission was concerned with.

In its submission, the PAC lamented that not enough media coverage was given to smaller political parties.

In the Rhodes University submission, Professor Herman Wasserman revealed research that showed that local journalists considered themselves an “unofficial opposition to counter the dominance of the ANC in national politics”.

Wasserman wrote in his submission that “the media should not only be seen as a centre of economic power, but also a powerful political role player in their own right. When debating the freedom of the press, the economic and political power relations at play should therefore not be lost from sight.”

This is a view that will likely get a sympathetic ear from the ANC, which has long seen itself as being positioned at odds or even at “war” with the press.

Members of the public and interested organisations are urged to participate in the Press Freedom Commission’s “Listening to South Africa” campaign, which is being convened at the Braamfontein Recreational Centre, Corner Harrison and Juta Streets, until tomorrow at 5pm.

City Press readers can also follow live tweets from the hearings at @City_Press on Twitter.

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