The Press Council of South Africa has endorsed the system of media self regulation and has proposed sweeping changes to the South African Press Code.
On August 18, the Press Council released the report of its task team appointed to investigate the functioning of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman's office.
The 100-page report, which took a year to complete, will now be considered by the industry bodies making up the Press Council for their approval. These are: the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), the Newspaper Association of SA, the Forum for Community Journalists, the Magazine Publishers' Association of SA and the Association of Independent Publishers of SA.
The report will also be considered by the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) chaired by former Chief Justice Pius Langa.
It proposes that the Press Council be restructured to include a Director, who will concentrate on public engagement around press standards and media freedom; a Public Advocate, who will assist members of the public to formulate their complaints, assist in negotiating with a publication and may assist complainants during hearings; the Ombudsman, who will arbitrate matters that are not resolved through negotiation; and a Chair of Appeals, who will deal with appeals.
The report recommends that legal representation should not be allowed during hearings in order to keep proceedings informal and inexpensive. Complainants and respondents are, however, able to take legal advice ahead of hearings and lawyers may assist them in drawing up their papers.
The new structure would facilitate a more proactive approach and distinguishes between the Council's various functions: mediation, arbitration, appeals and public engagement. In the Public Advocate, it creates a position whose function is unambiguously on the side of the reading public.
The report recommends that the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman's Office should be extended to the online publications of its members.
The practice of matching the size and position of an apology and retraction to the gravity of the offence is to be continued and strengthened. If the Ombudsman finds a publication to be a repeat offender, he may recommend that the Press Council convene a hearing to inquire into the repeated offences and ask the offender for an explanation and a plan to prevent the recidivism.
The report rejected the notion of imposing fines on newspapers saying that the continued use of peer pressure and the publication of findings were the best forms of leverage. It said adverse rulings had a large impact on a publication, "primarily the damage to its reputation, the loss of valuable space to accommodate the apology and the ruling, and the time and effort of the editorial staff responding to the complaint."
It suggested amendments to the Press Code, having perused 100 codes from around the world, including 25 from Africa, as well as public input.
Proposed amendments include a section focusing on the rights of children, and guidelines on privacy, dignity and reputation; and a section on independence and avoiding conflicts of interest. The report proposes that plagiarism should be expressly prohibited by the Press Code, and that guidelines for the use of confidential and anonymous sources be expanded. It also beefs up rules about discrimination and hate speech.
The report says that the Ombudsman's quarterly report to the SA National Editors Forum should be broadened to include a substantive look at the industry and comment on emerging trends. The reports should be published widely, as should an annual overview of the state of the print media, which would provide a useful tool to highlight and discuss issues in a proactive way. Universities will be engaged to help with research.
Although the complaints process is far more accessible than, for example, the courts, the Task Team considered ways in which to improve this for the public. The Press Council will pursue the following suggestions:
The Press Council is to strengthen its marketing of the Ombudsman's system. It should notify the wider media and public in advance of hearings to enable greater public attendance.
Information about the source of funding for the Council should be publicised, including in the annual reports of the Council.
The Ombudsman's Office is to upgrade its IT system to track statistics, particularly on the turnaround time on complaints.
"The Press Council has accepted the report of its Task Team and believes that implementing the proposals will lead to an improvement in the quality of journalism in South Africa and will make our adjudication system more efficient and effective," says Press Council chair Raymond Louw.
"The Press Freedom Commission will examine the report and conduct its own investigation and produce what it deems the most desirable structure and process in a South African Press Freedom Report containing its recommendations for the regulation of the print media. Constituent associations will also give their feedback to the Council.
"We believe the final outcome will result in a strong and effective Press Council acting as a watchdog over press misdemeanour, while promoting excellence in the practice of journalism and upholding the freedom and independence of the press. All are essential elements in promoting the concepts of democracy," Mr Louw said.
Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe who, like Raymond Louw, was an ex officio member of the Task Team contributing greatly to is work, said: "The Task Team's brief was to review the SA Press Code, the Constitution of the Press Council and the Complaints Procedures; to review the running of the current system; to review best practice around the world; and to invite suggestions from the public and other stakeholders.
"It used three criteria for evaluating proposals: Will the proposal lead to an improvement in the quality of journalism in South Africa? Will the proposal make the Press Council system more efficient and effective? Is the suggestion practical?
"We received 58 written and oral submissions, including substantial submissions from academics and from organisations with large constituencies. We used print, radio, television and online adverts, news stories and columns to invite submissions, and held public hearings in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein. We also corresponded with press councils in other countries, and the Broadcast Complaints Commission of SA.
"The Task Team conducted its own research into press councils around the world, reviewing 100 codes including 25 from Africa; and used research about press councils conducted by the New Zealand Press Council. We evaluated statutory regulation and self-regulation, and researched self-regulatory bodies of other industries in South Africa."
The review was undertaken partly because the five-year term of office of the presentPress Council is coming to an end and it was felt that a review was timely; and partly because of criticisms directed at the print media by the ruling African National Congress, government ministers and officials and some members of the public. The criticisms were at times accompanied by calls for stronger press regulation.
The wide-ranging survey of media regulatory practices undertaken convinced the Task Team and the Press Council that statutory regulation is not warranted in South Africa and that self-regulation remains the best option.
The Task Team noted that: "Statutory regulation tends to have arisen in particular historical contexts, usually when there was a relative lack of freedom of expression and/or a lack of consensus among the press themselves on ethical codes and their enforcement.
"Countries with strong traditions of freedom of expression and that have optimum co-operation among the media, practise self-regulation. This ensures respect for and compliance with the decisions of the press council."