Cosatu backs media tribunal

Cosatu is set to back the ANC proposal to set up a media ­appeals tribunal (MAT) to regulate the country’s press.

But the labour federation wants a different approach to how the watchdog will be implemented. It warns there is a ­danger the tribunal could become a “censorship tool” as editors hold back stories about ministers for fear of “being hauled before a MAT that is biased towards government’s view”.

It envisages the tribunal should have the same powers and autonomy as Chapter Nine institutions – state organisations that support constitutional ­democracy.

In a paper for discussion at the federation’s central executive committee meeting which starts tomorrow, Cosatu officials Patrick Craven and Prakashnee Govender say members of the commission should act with ­integrity and courage.

However, it also warns against pitfalls if a regulator does not operate at arms-length from the state.

“The problem arises when a regulatory body like either Icasa (Independent Communications Authority of SA) or MAT has to deal with complaints when the government itself is party to a dispute.

“An example was when there were allegations made by Cosatu and others of factional interference in the editorial policy in the (Thabo) Mbeki era, allegations which Icasa should have investigated but scandalously did not.

“Similar situations could arise with the print media. Notwithstanding the ANC’s legitimate criticism of the media in general, some of the complaints are against publications – like City Press and the Mail & Guardian – when they print stories alleging corruption or waste of public money by ministers or departments.

“Such stories may or may not be true, but clearly the government itself cannot be the judge of their truth or falseness, in cases where ministers or senior civil servants are either the accused or the accuser.”

The Cosatu document also shares the ANC’s concern that media self-regulation?– in the form of the Press Ombudsman, the Press Council and the Press ­Appeals Panel – is “inappropriate”.

“At the same time, establishing a state regulator would mean moving towards the other extreme.”

The paper argues that the tribunal should include representatives of the print media, the state and organised civil society.

However, the document says state representatives should recuse themselves when the tribunal deals with ­matters involving government officials or ­institutions.

“The biggest concern with both the Protection of Information Bill and the MAT is that they could be misused to suppress the publication of matters of legitimate public concern, and to protect those guilty of unethical or criminal acts.

“It is therefore essential to strike the right balance between the right to publish potentially damaging, but true allegations, and the right for individuals and ­organisations to be protected from false ­allegations,” says the document.

Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini says the federation’s leadership will “discuss the paper and if it adopts it, it will become Cosatu’s position” on the matter.

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