The Press Council public hearings resumed in Eastern Cape on Monday, where academics from Rhodes University made detailed submissions. Again ANC representatives failed to show face, despite being the loudest voices calling for press reforms. More worrying, however, was the failure of civil society members and the general public to attend hearings. By MICHELLE SOLOMON.
Following the first of the Press Council hearings held in Johannesburg last week, the Eastern Cape session was held in Port Elizabeth’s city auditorium. It was hoped these hearings would allow the public to make recommendations regarding the role of the Press Council and implementing reforms of its Press Code. Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe was optimistic that some of these reforms could be in effect as early as June this year.
Rhodes journalism professors Guy Berger and Jane Duncan provided an instructive and detailed analysis of the Press Council and its roles, and proposed a comprehensive list of reforms.
Apartheid-activist-turned-academic Berger made several proposals for reform of the Press Council’s structure, and also addressed criticisms of the media put forward by the ANC, to improve self-regulation of the media. The mandatory waiver imposed in complaints proceedings has been one specific point of contention between the ANC and the Press Council. The party argues that by forcing Press Council complainants to waive their right to take a matter to court, complainants are being denied their right to a fair trial. Thloloe said yesterday that the waiver was necessary to prevent “tribunal hopping” or “fishing expeditions”, where complainants may misuse the Press Council to gain information about their complaint to use in a court case.
This argument does not hold water,” Berger said, and added that the waiver implied that the press had something to hide from a legal process. “That then begins to construct the system as an ignoble initiative to dodge traditional scrutiny,” he added.
As such, Berger suggested that “ethics and law be distinguished” and the Press Council should limit its rulings to complaints regarding press ethics rather than matters of law. For example, the Press Council would be unable to hear cases regarding the right to dignity, which is a matter for law and is not included in the rules of the Press Code, but could hear cases regarding defamation. “The council could expand the [Press] code so that it includes fundamental rights such as dignity… but only rule on the ethical aspects of a complaint,” Berger said.
Berger also proposed the inclusion of online media under the Press Council’s aegis, specifically referring to media websites, and said these should take responsibility for hate speech and defamatory comments made by users.
He added that journalism standards need to be improved, not only by the rulings made by the Press Council, but that ultimately the root causes of repeat violations needed to be examined. “Self-regulation is not only about catching people out, but of finding the causes of bad ethics in the first place. The aim is not to increase the number of cases resolved, but to reduce the number of cases,” Berger explained. Doing so, he stated, would be useful research and help improve journalism.
Former director of the Freedom of Expression Institute and fellow Rhodes academic Jane Duncan echoed Berger’s sentiments, and said that while the Press Council had grown a great deal since its days as the Ombudsman’s office, there was still room for reform of its weaknesses. Where Berger provided criticism of aspects of the institutional arrangement of the Press Council, Duncan expanded on suggestions for the council’s role as a media monitor and tool for analysis.
Duncan said a key international debate concerning press councils was the question as to whether the institutions should limit their roles to the hearing, mediation and adjudication of complaints, or whether they should play a broader role as regulators of journalistic standards. She further said the importance of the Press Council’s role in the latter, more proactive role. In order to do so, past Press Council rulings would have to be examined for trends in press violations. “This would allow us to make broader assessments about whether our journalism standards are improving or declining,” Duncan explained.
Research of how newsrooms function are also relevant and important to provide rebuttals to some arguments regarding the state regulation of the media, Duncan said, adding that a lack of research base in the Press Council means the “public is unable to assess the veracity of the complaints” made by the ANC. A lack of advocacy work regarding the freedoms of speech and expression was worrying, and she felt the council should raise public awareness of the dangers of the Protection of Information Bill.
While the contributions of the Rhodes academics were thorough and specific, the issue of a statutory media appeals tribunal is a political one and not purely administrative. The Press Council could be reformed to be the world’s most efficient and this probably would still not appease the ANC. In fact, the stark lack of public participation in the Port Elizabeth hearings may only further the ANC’s argument regarding the mis- and under-representation of sectors of South African society. Rhodes academic Herman Wasserman, who attended the public hearings, said the lack of public participation may be abused in future arguments by the ANC as an indication of the Press Council’s irrelevance and inability to represent South Africans as a whole.
This is especially worrying in provinces like Eastern Cape, where lack of funding and turf wars among the few regional newspapers has meant many South Africans are not represented in the press, as papers struggle to find the reporters and resources to cover all areas of the neglected province.
Thloloe did not seem to appreciate the seriousness of this lack of attendance at the Post Elizabeth public hearings. When asked, he said he was “satisfied” with the level of contribution so far, and insisted that the public was well aware of the hearings, despite his assertion that the Press Council “did not pay a cent” for advertising. The ombudsman said he believed adverts were made available to newspapers, and it was “in their interest” to run them. Where newspapers did not do so, Thloloe explained, members of the Press Council had appeared on television and radio. Therefore, “any South African who claims not to know about the Press Council hearings has not been in South Africa recently.”
To ensure the protection of the Press Council as a self-regulatory body (and by extension, press freedom) we need a radical change in the public’s opinion of the media, not merely the functions of the council. We need public buy-in and popular support to withstand the excessive advances the ANC in the future. The lack of concern for the non-attendance of the public hearings reflects an apparent ignorance of the political nuances and challenges facing the Press Council at this time. FAM
Michelle Solomon is an economic journalism Master's student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and her research interests include media policy and ethics, as well as identity politics regarding gender, race and ethnicity.
Photo: Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe and Sunday Times deputy managing editor and Press Appeals Panel press representative Susan Smuts at the Press Council public hearings in Port Elizabeth on Monday. Photo: Richard Stupart