“We, the title editors of South Africa’s major publications and members of the South African National Editors’ Forum, are deeply concerned about the attempts to curtail freedom of expression and the free flow of information in our country.” So goes the opening stanza of The Auckland Park Declaration (APD), a declaration whose signatories range from the Daily Sun’s Themba Khumalo to the Mail and Guardian’s Nic Dawes. The APD was a result of the governing party’s resuscitation of the debate of whether or not it’s necessary to have a media appeals tribunal for those who may feel that they have been inaccurately reported on. Needless to say that such a debate has managed to ruffle the feathers of media practitioners and indeed some citizens of the Republic. After all, history has demonstrated on numerous occasions that would-be banana republics began by tightening the screws on media freedom particularly press.
The governing African National Congress has made public its proposed document regarding the contentious media appeals tribunal and has invited public comments and those submissions will be ‘vigorously’ contested at its forth coming National General Council (20 – 24 September) in Durban. The ANC contends, rightfully so, that the information is not the preserve of the rich and powerful and the disadvantaged must be able to impart their own information and ideas. The thorniest issue from the proposed document is that of establishing a legislated body that will function as a watchdog against any ‘bad’ reporting. As things stand, there’s the Press Ombudsman Office which functions as the print media’s self regulating mechanism which ensures that fair and balanced reporting takes in newsrooms of the many newspapers of that are available for public consumption.
But it has to be conceded that until recently the Press Ombudsman functions and existence wasn’t as known to the greater citizenry as much as, say, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, which acts as the watchdog for the broadcasting industry. And the fact that the Press Ombudsman hasn’t been in the public consciousness as much as it ought to be, it, therefore, means that even when it has carried out its functions as expected people didn’t know about it, unless they ‘went out’ of their way to find out. The ANC, along with the South African Communist Party, also argue that the fact that when an aggrieved party decides to lay a complaint against a newspaper, that party is, as per Press Ombudsman’s requirements, expected waive the right to approach the Courts for alternative recourse and that because of the expenses involved in litigations, it therefore means that the a tribunal would serve a better purpose instead of the ombudsman’s decisions that require editors to make ‘mere’ retractions which aren’t given the same prominence as initials reports. The expensiveness of our Courts isn’t in all honesty a problem of the ombudsman.
Has the self regulation worked as efficient as it had been expected to in as far as balancing the rights of free press and those of privacy and dignity of those reported on? The press ombudsman and editors such as Peter Bruce of the Business Day have conceded that there are a lot of inadequacies still impeding on the desired deliverables of the press’ self regulatory mechanism but that it doesn’t warrant a legislated body. The Deputy Minister of Transport and SACP deputy Secretary General, Jemery Cronin, said: “Clearly, we have a problem. In fact, several media problems. Yet it is wrong to see a tribunal as the solution to all the problems. The media certainly needs to play a watchdog role. There are many examples of journalists exposing wrongdoing in high places and we should salute those who have done so. However, there are times when watchdog obsessing displaces other roles of the media – like helping citizens with accurate information on matters affecting their lives.” Another argument from those sympathetic to the idea of a tribunal say that the media has failed in regulating its conduct and dealing firmly with poor journalism a case points are the pernicious ways in which the Sunday Times dealt with the late Manto Tshabalala Msimang while she was health minister and how Independent Newspapers’ titles chose to run with a story that false accused Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe of having an affair with a 24 year old woman amongst other stories, of course. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s Robert Nkuna, in an opinion piece published in The Star, said the following on legislated watchdogs, “Lessons from broadcasting suggest that it is possible for self-regulatory institutions to co-exist with public oversight institutions. Since the advent of democracy, the broadcasting self-regulatory institutions have co-existed with the independent regulator and the broadcast media have not complained about this arrangement. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has not interfered with the work of the self-regulatory mechanism, so the broadcast sector has not seen a need to enter to fray. It is therefore possible to create an appeal mechanism without running foul of the constitution.”
What are the implications of having a legislated watchdog and would those who would be chosen as adjudicators be impartial even when dealing with stories involving their own party’s members? Because it goes without saying that there would be the politically deployed personnel in the proposed tribunal. City Press Public Editor, Mathatha Tsedu, penned the following in his column in the Sunday newspaper, “And judging by the spokespersons for the tribunal, there is reason to worry because many, if not all, of them have found themselves the subject of coverage around issues they would rather not have had to deal with publicly. That is the crux of this matter now. What does the ANC want? A mechanism to ensure sufficient redress for the public, or a mechanism for redress they can control?” We come from a past where freedom of press and other expressions was suppressed and it started with proposal such as these ones that are being mooted by the governing party. Without assiduous investigative and credible journalism, stories of the likes of convicted former police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, Shabir Shaik and other stories that are now public knowledge wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
That, however, doesn’t mean that the media is a holy cow and ought not to be challenged. The media of the Republic is largely in the control of three companies, namely Avusa, Naspers and Independent Newspapers and the space needs to be opened and perhaps the much publicised and supposedly government ‘friendly’ daily the New Age will also contribute meaningfully to national discourse and thorough journalism. Renowned thinker, Albert Camus may have well be referring this debate when he said:”A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but most certainly, without freedom, a press will never be anything but bad.” Freedom of expression and privacy are critical in any credible democracy and should be balanced in order for to develop any society effectively.