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No show from ANC

By Glenda Daniels

Guess what? The ANC has not shown up for any of the Press Council review public hearings held so far this month. And yet, it is the ANC, more than any other organisation in the country, which is unhappy about the independent and critical South African press.

Last year there was heated debate between the media and supporters of a press free from political interference and those within the ANC and the SACP who proposed a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) to curb the excesses of the media.

Then a resolution was passed in September last year at the ANC national general council in Durban to pursue the Polokwane December 2007 resolution that Parliament investigates the possibility of a MAT.

Locally and internationally the furore received masses of attention in media. Editors under the leadership of the South African National Editors’ Forum persuaded the government to meet with them and thrash out the issues. A two-day summit took place with government representatives at a Magaliesberg retreat — the Mount Grace — in October. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe announced after this summit that the media would be given the chance to review the self-regulatory mechanism, and reform itself before any decision about a MAT would be made. Of course one is aware that Motlanthe is not the ANC and the ANC is not Motlanthe.

The media was taken aback when less than a month after this summit, which seemed to have ended on an optimistic note, President Jacob Zuma told an ANC Youth League rally that he was as committed as ever to a MAT. Nevertheless, in good faith, the media proceeded with its review process.

The main issues for proponents of the MAT, such as ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu and the SACP’s Blade Nzimande were the following: the media does not respect its leaders dignity; when the media makes mistakes, the apologies are not big enough and out of proportion to the mistakes made; the self-regulation system in terms of the Press Council, Ombudsman and Appeals Panel was not working. In support of a MAT, Mthembu went so far as to say that if the journalists had to be jailed then so be it, while Nzimande in his Red Alert newsletter called the media “capitalist bastards”.

So the self-review process began. Newspapers placed advertisements inviting readers or members of the public to comment on how the self-regulation system should work, who should be on the Ombudsman panel, and who should be on the Appeals panel? The system of self-regulation is practised everywhere in democratic countries. There are very few countries in the world with state tribunals save for China and Zimbabwe. In both the latter countries you are not recognised as a journalist unless you are registered with a government appointed body. Free-thinking, independent journalists do not get accreditation.

The South African print industry did some soul and self-searching: was the Press Council and Ombudsman’s office too journalist heavy? In other words should there be more representatives from the public, together with perhaps retired judges?

How should the press apologise for mistakes made? Some newspaper people, feeling on the back foot, felt that perhaps even financial penalties should be considered. Should apologies always be placed on the front page, even if the offending story was on the inside of the paper? Should retractions be in much bigger font size — what was fair?

Over the past five months there have been many submissions made from the public: individuals, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, academics, members of the press themselves about the regulation of the press. Then the veteran journalist and current Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe and his deputy, Johan Retief, began the arduous task of travelling around the country to hear people’s views. The public hearing process began in mid-February: Joburg (February 17-18), Port Elizabeth (February 21-22), Cape Town (February 24-25), Bloemfontein (February 28 – March 1) and Durban (March 3-4).

But no show from the ANC!

Makes you wonder about the organisation’s good faith, doesn’t it? It also confirms suspicions that the ANC is just hell-bent on its media tribunal, which would see state regulation of the media. So what’s the delay? Three things: it doesn’t know how to implement its own bad idea; it’s wary of the international embarrassment it knows such a move would create, and finally, not all in the ANC believe there should be state regulation of the media. It’s an ANC with no centre, split into many different ideological tentacles.

But guess what? I don’t think too many in the ANC are interested in the review process if their lack of participation thus far is anything to go by. Which then leads me to the conclusion that it just wants to control the media, full stop.

Glenda Daniels is advocacy co-ordinator at amaBhungane, M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism.