'Black Wednesday' as Independent quits press ombudsman

Johannesburg - The Press Council on Friday criticised Independent Media's decision to resign from the body and establish its own ombudsman.

The group, that owns numerous newspapers and online platforms including the Cape Times, The Star, The Mercury and IOL, announced on Thursday it was pulling out of the official regulatory system for independent media in South Africa.

Complaints against the group’s titles would now be adjudicated by an internal ombudsman, Jovial Rantao. He is a former editor of various titles in Independent Media.

“It’s ironic that Independent Media chose to withdraw from the Press Council in the week that we commemorate Black Wednesday, October 19 1977, when the World, Weekend World and Pro Veritate were shut down by the apartheid government. The Press Council has been a bulwark against statutory regulation that would violate the country’s Constitution,” the council said in a statement.

The Press Council is headed by retired judge Phillip Levinsohn. The press ombudsman’s adjudicators are led by retired judge Bernard Ngoepe.

Waiver clause

Independent Media criticised the Press Council for not reintroducing a waiver clause to the Press Code that forces complainants to the ombudsman to relinquish their rights to institute civil proceedings against media houses.

The waiver clause was scrapped from the Press Code following recommendations by former chief justice Pius Langa’s press freedom commission.

“Independent was intimately involved in the 2012 decision to remove the waiver,” the council said.

“When Independent first raised its objections to the absence of the waiver, we consulted with lawyers and they advised the Press Council that the waiver could be successfully challenged in a court of law. The Press Council has been working to find a solution to this impasse. In the meantime, we’ve been adjudicating in complaints against Independent - 72 print and five online stories this year alone.

“After a meeting with Independent last month, the Press Council sent the company our proposed solution, hoping we would engage on it. Suddenly, this inexplicable decision to abandon the Press Council explodes in our faces.”

Independent Media’s chief of staff Zenariah Barends previously stated the company was committed to media self-regulation and “vehemently opposed to any state regulation of the media or a government media appeals tribunal”.

Apart from Rantao, the group would appoint its own “Independent Media Press Appeal Tribunal” to be headed by a retired judge or senior advocate.

The Press Council said Independent’s withdrawal was not a “mortal blow” to its work since the majority of print and online publications, including Media24, TMG and the Mail & Guardian, were still subscribers to the code of ethics and conduct for South African journalists.

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