South Africa’s system of newspaper self-regulation is expected to undergo a major overhaul in line with recommendations by the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) last week.
Most importantly, the commission has recommended that the current system of self-regulation be replaced by a new system of independent co-regulation. The commission describes the proposed system, which will be unique to South Africa, thus:
“Independent co-regulation is a system of regulation that involves public and press participation with a predominant public membership but without State or government participation. It is accountable to the public.”
The proposal strikes a middle ground between the extremes of self-regulation preferred by the press and statutory regulation proposed by the ruling ANC. It promotes press freedom while raising the bar for the newspapers in terms of standards, accountability and fairness.
Significantly, the proposal received an initial warm reception from Gwede Mantashe, the powerful secretary general of the ruling ANC. Although the ANC NEC has yet to pronounce on the commission’s report, one can’t think of any good reason why it would reject it.
The good work done by the commission renders redundant the governing party’s plan to have parliament investigate the desirability of a possibly punitive statutory Media Appeals Tribunal to rein in a press it accuses of being Eurocentric, untransformed and a law unto itself.
The other key recommendations include that:
*The Press Council of South Africa have a stronger public representation, with seven of its 12 members drawn from the public and five nominated by the industry. At least half of the members should be women.
*The waiver clause prohibiting complainants users from later going to court be scrapped.
*The Press Code be amended to allow for acceptance of third party complaints and to enhance protection of the rights of children.
*There be a hierarchy of sanctions for violations of the Press Code, including, for the first time, monetary fines for extreme cases violation of the regulatory process.
*Consideration be given to the development of a media transformation charter with clear targets and deadlines.
All freedom-loving South Africans and democrats the world over need to give the country a pat on the back for, once again, rising to the challenge by finding a creative solution to yet another divisive issue that many feared heralded the death of free speech and erosion of constitutional democracy.
The expected changes reaffirm the constitutionally enshrined right of the Fourth Estate to continue playing its watchdog role without fear, which is essential to democracy.
Communicators will find particularly pleasing the recommendations aimed at improving the standard of journalism. While journalistic standards are generally laudable, ethical lapses and shoddiness remain a problem, with devastating effects on our client’s reputations.
A combination of the proposals aimed at raising the professional and ethical bar for journalists, and the stricter sanctions for violations of the Press Code should result in reporting that is fairer, more accurate, more ethical and more balanced.
Theoretically, the resultant fairer treatment of our clients by the press will greatly minimise the amount of malicious damage to their reputations and subsequent need for damage control. In short, our jobs are about to become a bit easier.
*Thabo Leshilo is former head of Sanef’s media freedom committee. He sat on the PMSA and Sanef committee that established the Press Freedom Commission.