Revamped press complaints system announced

2012-10-03 14:33

Cape Town - Major changes were announced on Wednesday to the way the Press Council of SA (PCSA) deals with complaints against publications.

The changes - effective from January 1 next year - were announced by the PCSA in Johannesburg, along with a reviewed code of conduct and constitution.

According to the new regulations, complaints must be considered and mediated or adjudicated on within the shortest possible time after the publication of the matter giving rise to the complaint.

A complaint must also be made as soon as possible, and not later than 20 working days after the date of publication giving rise to the complaint.

The PCSA's public advocate - to be appointed in terms of the revised PCSA constitution - will throughout the entire process advise and assist the complainant.

Unacceptable complaints

Complaints must be made to the public advocate - not the ombudsman, as is currently the case - either in person, by telephone, or in writing, including cable, telegram, telex, SMS, e-mail, and fax messages.

The public advocate will not accept a complaint which is anonymous, fraudulent, frivolous, malicious or vexatious, or prima facie falls outside the ambit of the press code, or which is directed at a newspaper outside the jurisdiction of the ombudsman.

If, within 30 working days after the date of publication there has been no complaint, but the public advocate believes a prima facie contravention of the press code has been committed and it is in the public interest, he may file a complaint with the ombudsman for adjudication.

Upon formal acceptance of a complaint by the public advocate he or she must immediately notify the publication concerned of the complaint in writing, giving sufficient details to enable the respondent to investigate the matter and respond within seven working days, unless a satisfactory reason is given to the public advocate for an extension of time.

The public advocate must immediately try together with the complainant to achieve a speedy settlement with the publication.

If the complaint is not settled within 15 working days of the publication receiving notice of the complaint, the public advocate will refer the complaint to the ombudsman for adjudication, unless she or he feels the time-frame needs to be lengthened because of the circumstances.


The ombudsman may, if it is reasonable not to hear the parties, decide the matter on the papers.

If the ombudsman finds that the matter cannot be decided on the papers, but some aspects of a complaint need to be clarified and sees no need for a formal hearing, the ombudsman may convene an informal hearing with the two parties.

Where the ombudsman decides to hold a hearing, he or she must convene an adjudication panel in which the ombudsman is joined by a public and a press member drawn from the panel of adjudicators, to adjudicate the matter with him or her at a hearing.

Both parties are expected to attend and address the adjudication panel, which is, in any case, entitled to question them personally or in writing on the matter.

Failure by the publication to send a representative may lead to the matter being adjudicated in their absence.

Decisions by the adjudication panel will be by a majority vote. Within seven working days of receipt of the decision, any one of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the chair of appeals.

The chair of appeals must appoint one press member and up to three public members from the panel of adjudicators to hear the appeal with him or her.

Again, both parties are expected to attend and address the appeals panel, which is also entitled to question them.

Failure by the publication to send a representative may lead to the matter being adjudicated in their absence.

Legal representation

The hearings of the adjudicating panel and of the appeals panel must be open to the public, unless the identity of a rape victim or victim of a sexual offence, a child under 18, or a victim of extortion, is at issue.

The public advocate may assist the complainant at a hearing of the adjudicating panel or the appeals panel.

Legal representation will not be permitted at hearings unless:
- the ombudsman or the chair of appeals and all the other parties consent; or
- the ombudsman or the chair of appeals concludes that it is unreasonable to expect a party to deal with the dispute without legal representation.

The ombudsman, the adjudication panel, the chair of appeals, and the appeals panel must hand down a finding within 21 days of the hearing of the complaint.

Sanctions by the ombudsman, the adjudication panel, or the appeals panel, as the case may be, may make any one or more orders against the proprietor of the publication, including:
- caution or reprimand the publication;
- direct that a correction, retraction, or explanation and, where appropriate, an apology and/or the findings of the ombudsman, the adjudication panel, or the appeals panel be published by the respondent in such manner as they may determine;
- order that a complainant’s reply to a published article, comment, or letter be published by the publication; or
- make any supplementary or ancillary orders or issue directives that are considered necessary for carrying into effect the orders or directives made and, more particularly, issue directives as to the publication of the findings of the ombudsman, the adjudication panel, or the appeals panel.

Monetary fines will not be imposed as a penalty for the content of the press.

However, monetary fines according to a formula determined by the council and/or suspension for a period or expulsion from the jurisdiction of the ombudsman may be imposed as sanctions for a respondent’s failure to appear for adjudication hearings and repeated non-compliance with the rulings of the adjudicatory system.