There were fears that the Press Freedom Commission hearings, dubbed the "Listening to South Africa Campaign" would result in nothing more than a rehash of the Press Council public hearings that took place in 2011. At the very least, a greater diversity of voices seem to have come to the party. By JULIE REID.
On Thursday 19 January the first of a series of hearings hosted by the Press Freedom Commission was held in Cape Town. First, a brief history of the PFC itself. In partial response to the ANC’s calls for a statutory body to regulate the print media, or a media appeals tribunal, the South African Press Council conducted a review of its processes over 2010 and 2011. South Africa’s press self-regulatory body released a full report of this review process in August 2011, and at around the same time the PFC was instituted by Print Media South Africa and the South African National Editors Forum.
Similar to the review conducted by the Press Council, the PFC was also tasked with investigating accountability mechanisms for the press, and this left many wondering whether this new commission was not simply an unnecessary repeat of work already done by the Press Council. The first of the PFC hearings dispelled this notion.
As a complaints body, with an ombudsman, that accepts grievances about the content of the press from the public, the Press Council is funded and supported by print-media industry players, which makes it something of a self-regulatory system, meaning that the industry adopts the responsibility of regulating itself. The biggest advantage of this type of regulation is that it means that the government (and potentially shady politicians) do not get to meddle with what gets printed or with journalistic and editorial freedoms of expression. Resultantly, when the Press Council conducted its review process, it did so with a limited mandate and set out to discover how the system of self-regulation in South Africa could be improved.
The Press Freedom Commission cast its net decidedly wider. This means that it is investigating methods of press regulation which include, but are not limited to, self-regulation. Statutory regulation, or regulation by the government, is therefore on the cards for discussion.
Firstly, because the debate has been thrown open, it seems to have brought more people to the table. While the Press Council received 58 written submissions during its review, the Press Freedom Commission has already received almost four times as many. Secondly, the Press Council’s review process was largely dominated by voices that were, although critical of the current workings of the Press Council itself, supportive of the mechanism of press self-regulation as a matter of principle. The PFC has created a space for not only those in favour of self-regulation to have their say, but also for individuals and organisations who would like to see governmental regulation of the press to argue their case.
The first of the presentations made in Cape Town on Thursday was by a representative of the National Union of Mineworkers, who passionately proclaimed the support of the NUM for the ANC’s suggestion of a media appeals tribunal. The NUM repeated the ruling party's arguments that the media has not yet "transformed" and most often reports according to an ideological bias that is akin to that of the opposition, instead of providing fair representation and unbiased reporting.
Prakashni Govender from Cosatu took a slightly softer line, dodging the commissioner’s attempts to enquire as to where exactly Cosatu stands on the issue. According to Govender, the "constitutional structures" of Cosatu have not yet started the ball rolling to decide whether the organisation is in favour of self-regulation, statutory regulation or something else. But lack of a firm position aside, the bulk of the Cosatu presentation contained many of the same arguments against the press that have emanated from the ANC. These include the complaint that the Press Council is a "toothless" mechanism because it does not impose severe sanctions on newspapers that have transgressed the Press Code (newspapers are asked to publish apologies, but they are not made to pay fines).
Govender also raised the issue of the seeming lack of transformation of media ownership, complaining that with 95% of press circulation is owned by just three companies, this results in an ideological bias in favour of the opposition dominating in the press. Govender was at pains to emphasise, however, that whichever press-accountability mechanism is eventually selected for South Africa, this should not inhibit editorial independence or the freedom of the press.
In the midst of a lot of talk of establishing a body which regulates the press more stringently than the current Press Council, and one which could impose harsher "sentences" on offending newspapers, a key counter argument to the imposition of fines was delivered by Mark Weinberg from the Right2Know Campaign. Asked by the panel whether he thought newspapers should be fined when found to have reported the facts incorrectly, Weinberg said: “Well, there’s a great deal of discussion around that issue within the Right2Know Campaign. But personally, I think it’s naive. If a journalist makes a mistake, and the newspaper has to pay a fine, that journalist is not going to be too popular with his boss because he has cost the newspaper money. And in the current economic climate, no one wants to be unpopular with the boss. So journalists will take fewer risks and this will limit courageous journalism. We should provide journalists a safe space in which they can be wrong. Otherwise it’s just censorship of another kind. It’s not pre-publication or post-publication censorship. It’s something called the chilling effect.”
The Right2Know Campaign also suggested that when discussing press regulation, a distinction be made between the regulation of the press content, and the regulation of press ownership. Weinberg stated that we should defend the right of freedom of expression and the right not to be censored, while also defending the right to produce media. According to the Right2Know Campaign, while government should be kept strictly out of the mechanisms for regulating media content, government does have an important role to play in ensuring that the media is not overly monopolised and creating possibilities for more people to produce media, thus resulting in a greater diversity of media. This suggested distinction is significant, since self-regulation’s detractors, most notably the ANC, have used the concentration of press ownership as a metaphorical beating stick to argue in favour of a media appeals tribunal, as if a monopolised media business landscape can justify the statutory regulation of what goes to print.
Broken down simply, this argument reads as such: because the ownership of the media is too concentrated and lacking in transformation, we are going to limit what the press can and can’t say. The concentration of media ownership in South Africa is hardly something that anyone can deny: Media24 is the biggest player, followed by Independent Newspapers and Avusa, and between the three of them put out very nearly all of the printed news in this country. But to limit freedom of expression, and to clamp down on the content of the newspapers that these companies produce, does not solve the problem of a monopolised print-media economy. It’s like repairing the toaster in the kitchen, when what you really should be doing is changing the flat tyre on the car outside. So the Right2Know Campaign’s distinction between the two issues is critical, especially since the government has a particularly important role to play in one of them, while the state should, according to Right2Know, leave the other one strictly alone.
From Cape Town, the Press Freedom Commission "road show" moves to Durban on 23 January, and will follow up in Johannesburg from 30 January to 1 February. The three-day Johannesburg hearings promise to be the most exciting of all. The line up includes representatives from the DA, the Public Protector, the PAC, the Human Rights Commission, the Film and Publications Board, Rhodes University, Unisa, Avusa, the UDM, Primedia, Media Monitoring Africa, TUT, Independent Newspapers and Azapo. Most significantly, the ANC is also scheduled to deliver a presentation. This is remarkable in light of the fact that the ANC, after invitation, selected not to take part in the earlier Press Council’s process of review. And since, in some ways, the ruling party is the instigator of this entire debate, all will be waiting expectantly to hear what they have to contribute.
For the Press Freedom Commission’s part, it has an unenviable and mammoth task. Although it has created a wide and open platform for debate, somewhere amidst the massively divergent viewpoints that are delivered from a plethora of different groups (each with their own interests), it must cobble out a coherent recommendation for the most desirable press-accountability mechanism for South Africa. It seems unlikely that when it is all over, it will be able to keep everyone happy, but that is not its job.
Once the Press Freedom Commission releases its final report (due at the end of March) a parliamentary committee will most likely commence investigations into the desirability of a media appeals tribunal. Potentially at stake here is the freedom of the press, and if the Press Freedom Commission can pull this whole thing off, those parliamentary discussions can take place under circumstances which are sadly rare these days in Parliament: a space of informed discussion, aided by solid research, and influenced by wide and properly conducted public participation and consultation. DM
Disclosure: Julie Reid is a member of the Right2Know Gauteng working group.