Interview with SA Press Council and Press Ombudsman

After media reports suggesting that the ruling party African National CongressMedia Appeals Tribunal (MAT) and the newly proposed Access to Information Act were a political means to threaten press and media freedom in the country, as a writer and blogger, I the dug even dipper.

Having written extensively on free and media freedom in the country before, I then later thought it appropriate to engage and speak to the South Africa Press Council and the Press Ombudsman members on the issue. This because both structures have been criticised by the ruling party for not dealing with their complaints as they would like them to after many of its members were reported by the country’s print media as being corrupt or involved in corrupt activities. This had angered the party so much that it therefore decided to introduce MAT, as it is now suspected, and the new law still under discussion.

Those that I have had written correspondence with include Franz Kruger (Media Representative of the Press), Raymond Low (Chairman of the Press Council), Joe Thloloe (Press Ombudsman) and here’s what they had to say:

AM: Mr. Raymond Louw you released a statement (see here) saying you were “appalled” by African National Congress and the South African Communist Party’s call for MAT. You said MAT was a “startling ignorance about what goes on in the Press Ombudsman’s office”. What ignorance were you referring to, specifically?

RL: It is spelled out in the statement.  The ANC refers to the Ombudsman’s office being run by the media and I was at pains to point out that he sits with public as well as press representatives and the same applies to the Appeals Panel which is presided over by a retired Supreme Court of Appeal judge sitting with a public and a press representative.  So to say that the office is run by the media without reference to the public representation or the appeals process involving a judge and another public representative discloses ignorance. Also, I spelled out that the ANC complained that the Ombudsman had ignored its protests (plural protests) but when it came to a discussion of what had happened, the ANC produced only one complaint that they said had been ignored.  This complaint was dealt with by the Ombudsman and he ruled in favour of the ANC complainant. Another example of gross ignorance about what went on at the Ombudsman office.

AM: You emphasized that the Ombudsman should be a person who is “well versed in the methods and practice of journalism and a senior journalist fills that role.” You also said there was a “strong public representation” in the Ombudsman office and they include Kenneth Sililo Mubu, Bewyn Petersen, Siboniso Nyatikazi, Clyde Broster, Ina du Bruyn and Dr Lindsay Clowes. Who selected them, when and how?

RL: This is a self regulation structure and that implies that it is essential to have a person from the media involved and that person is the ombudsman who has to know how the media operates in order to be informed and fair-minded in his findings.

FK: The process of selection is handled by an appointments panel, established in terms of the press council constitution. (available on the panel advertises the vacancies, and appoints the public members. The press representatives are appointed by various constituent organizations, like the SA National Editors forum.

AM: On the Appeals Panel, Mr. Louw you said there are actually 6 public representatives, and they are: Neville John Melville, Nomveliso Ntanjana, Brian Gibson, Dr Peter L. Coetzee, Ethel Manyaka and Simon Mantell. Have there been any changes since their election?

FK: One change: Melville has quit because of pressure of work. He is yet to be replaced.

RL: It should be pointed out that the Press Council chairman requests the Chief Justice to appoint a judge to chair the appointments panel. That judge sits with three public and press representatives selected by the Press Council. The Press Council is not engaged beyond naming the three reps in the selection of the Ombudsman and the public and press representatives.

AM: Over the years, the Ombudsman has instructed newspapers to apologies to parties who were wronged by the concerned publications because they, apologies, are “regarded by the media as one embodying serious sanction”.

  • Isn’t there another form of “serious sanction” that has been considered by the Ombudsman?
  • Has compensation of some sort, and not just apologies been considered by the Ombudsman office before, and if so, why not?

FK: The question of other penalties comes up from time to time, as it is in discussion now. The argument for purely moral sanction is that it hits newspapers where it hurts, namely in their credibility. Secondly, there is some difficulty with imposing fines since it is unlikely to be large enough to deter a large newspaper, which may take the view that it will run a sensational story and derive more benefit through increased circulation than it pays as a fine.

AM: This is because some newspaper reports can bring huge damage to people’s reputation, if they had any at all. For example: Cyril Ramaphosa vs. City Press and Robert Gumede vs. Mail & Guardian. In such instances, and if they have money, can the Ombudsman’s judgement then be used to sue such publications and the wrong party if he’s not satisfied with the Ombudsman’s Appeal ruling that the newspaper should apologise to him/her?

FK: People using the ombudsman system are required to sign a waiver which says they will not go to court. This is controversial, with some people saying it removes people’s legal rights. The council’s argument has been that people have a choice, to use the courts or this system which is specifically seen as a form of arbitration, an alternative to the legal route.

RL: A New Zealand Press Council survey came across 87 press councils in democratic countries and found that 86% of them conduct themselves in much the same way as the SA Press Council in regard to codes of conduct, complaints procedures, hearings and penalties.  Indeed that 86% stated that they had considered other punishment and had come to the conclusion that the published correction and apology approach where there is a breach by a paper is the most appropriate punishment and the most severe for a paper. The other 14% either did not answer or run statutory press councils or councils recognised by the state with various punishments. Some of those are in countries which would not be regarded as democratic.

RL: Should the route suggested be followed there is a strong possibility that newspapers would refuse to volunteer for adjudication by the ombudsman and the office would collapse

AM: Recently, we have seen many publications not reporting news as truthfully, accurately and fairly as is required of them and this has resulted in many publications being instructed by the Ombudsman to apologise to the wronged parties. Given this “carnival of newspaper apologies” we have seen recently and as noted by SACP’s Jeremy Cronin which Mr. Louw said were damages to a newspaper’s “credibility and trustworthiness” – has the standard of Journalism in SA stooped that low? If not, why?

FK: I think what we are seeing is massive overstatement of problems by the ANC because they want to make the case for this measure. The media are not perfect, mistakes are made, sometimes there is malice, there are bad apples. But for every problematic story there are ten cases where the media has played its role well and honourably.  Of course, we can’t be satisfied with there being any mistakes, and we need constantly to work on improving systems to raise the bar of journalism.

AM: For those poor communities whose views, stories and opinions may have been distorted by print and or online publications – what recourse do they have against the publications if they are situated far away from the Ombudsman office, e.g. in Kuruman?

FK: The ombudsman system is just as much available to them in Kuruman as it is in Johannesburg. They can email, fax, post a letter or phone. If they need help in formulating their complaint, they will be given assistance by the ombudsman’s office itself.

RL: In the last few years cases brought before the ombudsman have increased from 94 (2007) to more than a likely 150 this year. That’s hardly indicative of poor standards considering the thousands of stories published every year.

AM: Won’t penalties such as fines therefore be a wake up call to the journalists and or their editors especially when they make the same mistake (which is very unlikely, I think), if not a related mistake, that were made before whereby the two (the journalist and editor) will have to explain to their Managing Director or Group Chief Editor?

FK: Some editors have supported the development of some form of financial sanctions, and this will be considered, I think. While one understands the call for punishment, the assumption that problematic behaviour can simply be removed by sufficient punishment is a fallacy. Otherwise crime would end. The truth is that mistakes will still be made despite fines or anything else. Still, there’s obviously a discussion about it.

AM: Not that the Ombudsman office is or will be politically-influenced, but have there been engagements before between the ruling parties or any other party or any group of people and the Ombudsman office (except during appeals) on how the present system can be strengthened as is now being considered?

FK: There have been engagements, but to my knowledge none of them have debated in detail how to improve the system.  One should also remember the history of the council, where during the apartheid years there was a steady tightening of its role in response to government complaints that it was ineffective.

AM: Why do you think that many members of the ruling party – despite claims by the ANCYL that the Press Ombudsman office is useless – use the Press Ombudsman in lodging their grievances against some of the newspapers, e.g. Jessie Duarte? Does this mean not all ANC members are for MAT?

FK: The truth is that they do use the system, and as Joe has pointed out have won the argument in many cases.

AM: Has the Ombudsman office seen or attended to cases whereby a mistake made by one publication was made by another? If so, how does the Ombudsman help avoid instances like that?

FK: That’s hard to answer, because every case is different.  Many cases revolve around issues of accuracy, and I guess in that sense they are repeated from time to time. The ombudsman also spends time touring newsrooms to workshop issues with journalists, addresses public gatherings and does other things to raise awareness of ethics and high standards.

AM: I reported in one of my blog posts (in fact, I republished and acknowledged the report as it appeared on East Africa Press) on the research by the Human Rights Watch which indicated that independent journalism/media was under threat in Uganda. It therefore recommended that government issue a warning to its officials to refrain from threatening journalists. It also recommended that an “independent bodies (be established to) can protect the media from illegitimate government interference and promote diversity in and access to the media”. Do you think MAT is being proposed to interfere with and threaten this independence of Press Ombudsman?

FK: Clearly it is an attempt to threaten the independence of the ombudsman. That’s why the media are so concerned.

AM: So, an insinuation by the ruling party’s youth league that Press Ombudsman office is ‘useless’ could be seen as not true and in fact very threatening to the office’s independence?

FK: We would say it is untrue.

AM: Has the Press Ombudsman office received complaints by poor communities whose views/stories/opinions were misrepresented and or distorted by certain publications before?

FK: There have been complaints of that sort, but it is true that the people complaining tend to be from the elite, who have easier access.

AM: Has the Ombudsman office expressed concerns with newspapers on where and how instructed apologies appear on the publications, most of them appearing not on the same front page as the initial report?

FK: Where the ombudsman directs that an unfavourable ruling is published, it is now general practice that it be published in the same place as the original.  It does depend a little on the degree of the infraction – if it is a minor matter in a larger, generally correct report that had to be corrected, the need seems to be less.  But the complaint about hiding apologies often relates to apologies editors themselves write when they find a mistake.  These tend to be shorter, and therefore draw less attention. I am not aware that the ombudsman has drawn editors’ attention to this. There have been one or two cases where newspapers have resisted publishing the ombudsman’s ruling, and these have been taken up very forcefully with the newspaper’s owners.

AM: Former president Thabo Mbeki said during inauguration speech at the South African Newspaper Editors’ Forum speech in 1996 that:

“It is my own firm view that Press Freedom in our country is not under threat. No forces or institutions exist within our society which have the strength or power significantly to compromise such freedoms as those of expression and the press.

The combination of organised popular opinion and the legal and constitutional framework would prove too strong for any threat to these freedoms to succeed.

I am not, by these statements suggesting that permanent vigilance is not required. Indeed the maintenance of the system of democracy and the protection of human rights themselves demand the highest level of vigilance by our society as a whole.

I make these remarks in the hope that we might agree that there is no need daily to sound the alarm bells about press freedom as though we were faced with clear and imminent danger.”

AM: Given recent developments of the proposed access to information law and MAT – do you think he may have been wrong after all, unknowingly though?

FK: Whether these attempts will succeed is something that we have to wait and see.  But it is worrying that the ANC is considering these measures, it reflects a profoundly anti-democratic tendency in the party.

AM: And do you think Bloggers such as myself who have been critical of government will see the same censorship as the one likely to be seen by newspapers in future, that’s if the proposed laws and MAT go past Parliament? Should I be scared as a Blogger then?

FK: One of the difficulties with this kind of measure is that the Internet is physically almost impossible to police. So far, there has been no suggestion that bloggers will be affected – but then the ANC has not yet defined what it means by media.  So it may try, but the chances of success would seem to be slight.

In conclusion, said Mr. Kruger: “I think there is some dishonesty on the part of the ANC here, and the document which sets out the argument for a MAT is very shoddy.”


One thought on “Interview with SA Press Council and Press Ombudsman

  1. Pingback: When Media Ethics and Press Codes Fail… | Akanyang Africa

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