Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wits Debate: How should the media be regulated?

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On Monday 24 August I attended a public debate at the Wits Great Hall. The discussion concerned the Media Appeals Tribunal that the ANC has proposed as an alternative to the current self-regulatory system.

Speakers included:

  • Jackson Mthembu - ANC spokesperson and Chairman of the ANC National Executive Committee sub-committee on Communications
  • Lumko Mtimde - CEO of the Media Development and Diversity Agency
  • Thabo Leshilo - Chairperson SANEF Media Freedom Committee)
  • Jeremy Cronin - SACP Deputy General Secretary (absent due to illness)
  • Joe Thloloe - Press Ombudsman
  • Prof. Anton Harber - Head of Wits Journalism

Jackson Mthembu argued that although the instruments of media self-regulation were in place, such as the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council, there had never been any influencing of these instruments by "ordinary" South Africans. He criticised the fact that these organs were products of, and accountable to, the media industry itself. He instisted that the public could only have its say via "an independent body created through a transparent and public platform." Following the Polokwane resolutions, the ANC would consider the possibility of a statutory tribunal to which wronged citizens could lodge their complaints. In the past, he said, the only recourse available to those who had been maligned or defamed in the press was to have the Ombud order the paper to issue a retraction or an apology. However, Mthembu said that the Ombudsman or "Bra Joe" had no ability to issue a fine, thus limiting his effectiveness. "Can he himself be exonerated from the influence of the meedia when he himself is being paid by the media, when his offices are next to the editor's forum when the he depends on the whole structure and edifice of the media itself." Mthembu stated that such controls were designed to promote media freedom and not to muzzle it, but he failed to elaborate on what this actually meant.

Lumko Mtimde echoed the call for a public enquiry into an "independent" statutory appeals tribunal. He called for the "modalities to be debated," while also adding that media indignation at the proposal was disproportionate and needless. He pointed to other similar investigations in the UK and New Zealand, which he said revealed that self-regulation was not sacrosanct. Maybe South Africa could show the world the way in terms of such a statutory body, he argued.

Joe Thloloe pointed out that the UK report that Mr Mtimde had referenced actually said that self-regulation, while imperfect, was a far preferable system to statutory regulation. The principal of self-regulation was also maintained in New Zealand. The UK parliamentary sub-committee in question suggested improvements to self-regulation, but did not demandthat the system be replaced, as the ANC was now doing. "You are trying to reinvent the wheel - at what cost?" he asked rhetorically, "The constitution says that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. You can't tinker with that right unless you amend the constitution. If you tinker with freedom of expression you tinker with the very foundation of our democracy."

He concluded on a defiant note, taking issue with the threatening manner in which the ANC had initiated the debate, as if the MAT were a fait accompli: "We are prepared to review what we do, but for heaven's sake don't put a gun to our temple and ask us to cooperate in our own... I nearly used the word 'rape'."

Thabo Leshilo crticised the proposals, saying that the MAT has been in the works since the Polokwane conference in 2007. "That's two years and 9 months; that is an awful lot of time. By now we should have some idea of what this animal should look like." Leshilo also said that the choice of advocates for the MAT had been awful, as they had revealed that the real reason the ruling party desired tighter regulation lay in the fact that the media was sewing disunity in the ANC.

Anton Harber agreed that newspapers must be accountable, but he insisted that holding the press to account was the duty of peers, readers, the public itself, the courts, the law, and the Constitution, and not politicians. He also made a plea for the public to recognise good journalism, instead of merely trashing it. The press was one of the principal areas where government can be held to account, especially for exposing corruption. He called for the role and funding of the media to be debated, but stressed that this should not mean an increase in regulation. In this regard, he also noted that there is little evidence to suggest that regulation and journalistic quality are linked.

Illustration: John Dyson

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