South Africa's Press - a new start for old values

Tue, Oct 9, 2012


South Africa’s Press - a new start for old values

A revamped Press Council

Much stronger public participation in the Press Council of South Africa, as well as its adjudication procedures, is the most notable change in the sweeping reforms to press regulations announced on Constitutional Hill on Wednesday 3 October, 2012.

The reforms move the press from self-regulation to voluntary independent co-regulation.

This follows years of public debate and deliberations by a Task Team appointed by the Press Council. It handed its report to the independent Press Freedom Commission, an initiative of the Print and Digital Media Association (representing media owners) and the South African National Editors Forum (representing the editors).

Both bodies received extensive submissions and held public hearings throughout South Africa.

The reforms announced today follow the recommendations of the Press Freedom Commission, which was headed by retired Chief Justice, Pius Langa, and the ensuing industry-wide discussions.

The present Press Council consists of twelve members, half from the public and the other half from the press. Now an independent chairperson, in the form of a retired judge, adds another public voice.

Six members will be appointed by an Appointments Panel from nominations received from members of the public. The Panel will be chaired by a retired judge, who will not be the same as the chairperson of the Press Council. Both of these appointments will be based on recommendations made by the Chief Justice.

The other six will be representatives of the press and will be nominated by the constituent bodies of the Press Council: one member each by the Newspaper Association of South Africa, the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa, the Association of Independent Publishers, by the Forum of Community Journalists and two from the South African National Editors’ Forum.

The Press Council will elect a deputy chairperson from its members, alternating the position between public and press representatives.

It will aim to promote and develop ethical practice in journalism and to promote the adoption of those standards by the press. This will be based on the South African Press Code which has been adopted. It also creates a complaints mechanism.

The present council is run by an ombudsman and his deputy plus office staff.

The new Press Council will have important additions to take the load off the ombudsman’s shoulders but also to make complaining by the public easier. One is a Director, the other a Public Advocate.

The Director will lead the Press Council on a full-time, permanent basis and will concentrate on public engagement on issues of ethical journalism and media freedom. It will mean that the promotion of the Press Code and an understanding of what press freedom is about, receive more attention.

The office of the Ombudsman remains and will continue to adjudicate matters that cannot be resolved at the earlier level of the Public Advocate.

The Public Advocate will have a particularly key role in the new Council’s operations.

The Public Advocate will assist members of the public to formulate their complaints and attempt to resolve complaints amicably by liaising directly with the publication on behalf of the complainant.

A complainant may also be represented by the Public Advocate before the Ombudsman or the Appeals Panel. He/she may also file a complaint directly with the Ombudsman if of the view that a prima facie contravention of the Press Code has been committed and it is in the public interest.

Two more changes are noteworthy: other than before, legal representation at hearings will be allowed only in exceptional cases and an appeal to the ordinary courts will now be possible should unhappiness over an adjudication persist.

Previously complainants had to sign a waiver that they would give up this right. There was some unhappiness over this prescription. The new rule will apply for a year and will then be reviewed.    

New, too, are the introduction of space and monetary fines.

Space fines will be applied through imposing an amount of space which is commensurate with the seriousness of the infraction. At present a frequent complaint is that apologies in newspapers are hidden while the original copy was used more prominently.

There will not be monetary fines as a penalty for the content of a report, but there may be in case of failure to appear at an adjudication and repeated non-compliance with a ruling. In addition, suspension or expulsion from the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman could follow.

Complaints must be made to the Public Advocate who will attempt to achieve a speedy settlement. He will attempt to do so within 15 working days of the publication receiving the complaint notice. He may then refer the case to the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman will hear a complaint with the assistance of adjudicators drawn from the Panel of Adjudicators, which will consist of representatives of the press and the public.

This Panel will consist of eight public representatives and six from the press. The first will be appointed by the Appointments Panel and the latter by the constituent bodies of the Press Council - again, the public representation is stronger than that of the press.

Appeals from a decision by the Press Ombudsman will be handled by the Chair of Appeals, who will be a senior legal practitioner, preferably a retired judge. He will be appointed on the recommendation of the Chief Justice and may be the same judge who chairs the Appointments Panel.

The Chair of Appeals may also convene an Appeals Panel consisting of one press and,  at his or her discretion, up to three public members of the Adjudication Panel - again, providing strong public representation.

This shift toward stronger public representation is a theme running through the newly announced constitution of the Press Council - yet the fundamental commitment to freedom of the press as enshrined in the Constitution remains as its bedrock.

It is, in fact, a new beginning for old values.