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What a media tribunal means

By Glenda Daniels

I wonder if the media appeals tribunal the ANC wants so badly will happen. Raymond Louw, deputy chairperson of the media freedom committee at the South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef), who I interviewed on Wednesday reflected that it would, but in about a year’s time, after an investigation into its feasibility took place.

The ANC passed a resolution at its policy conference in Polokwane in December 2007 that it wanted Parliament to investigate the possibility of a media appeals tribunal. It reaffirmed this resolution at its national general council in September in Durban last year. Last week in Parliament ANC communications whip Stella Ndabeni indicated that she was keen to get the idea off the ground.

What is a tribunal?
Professor Franz Kruger from Wits Journalism, who has done extensive research on media tribunals around the world, said in an interview about two years ago, when the topic was current, that in fact these tribunals were on the upsurge in Eastern European countries, South America, and Africa.

Tribunals, if you take the Zimbabwe case, can mean registration of newspapers. At present any newspaper can exist. You don’t have to register with government. During apartheid days, all newspapers had to be registered.

A tribunal can also mean registration of journalists. Botswana is really battling to get journalists to register with the fairly new government-appointed body, but so far no fines have been imposed.

It could also mean that appeals against papers could have more punitive measures – for instance fines.

In China there is a government-appointed body – a tribunal if you like – that sees every article that goes through before publishing, and doesn’t have to impose any fines because the government has seen the piece before. This is pre-publication censorship, which the ANC says won’t happen here.

Well, let’s hope so.

The idea does not seem to have too much public support. But then the disbanding of the Scorpions didn’t have too much either, yet its demise happened quite soon after the ANC passed a resolution to disband it.

A recent TNS survey showed that only 31% of people supported both a media tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill (secrecy bill).

The ANC has major issues with the media, particularly the print media. The accusations range from “irresponsible” and “sensational” reporting, to “no respect” for dignity; from “inaccuracy” to an inadequate reporting of the good news, and even that the media is “bourgeoisie” and “capitalist-driven”.

Bad faith?
ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said in October last year, after a two-day summit with Sanef, that he’d like annual engagement between government and media to iron out hostilities.

Significantly, he said that the media should be given the chance to review its self-regulation mechanism before any tribunal would be imposed.

This was not an agreement between editors and the deputy president, as has been commonly reported. He said this at a press conference straight after the summit. Nevertheless, this is a senior member of the organisation saying this, and many in the media industry thought the tribunal idea had been put on ice.

Barely a month later, the ANC wrote a letter to the Press Council “wishing us well but reminding us about the media appeals tribunal”, to quote Ombudsman Joe Thloloe. What do we make of this? Is this bad faith on the part of the ANC?

I don’t believe it’s a case of bad faith at all. There are some in the ANC who seem not to be so sure that a media appeals tribunal is the brightest idea in the world. For instance: Motlanthe, Pallo Jordan, and now I’m stuck, and can’t think who else, I’m sure there are others. Kader Asmal perhaps, but he has made himself persona non grata in the ANC for some unpopular positions — for instance, not supporting the secrecy bill.

On the other hand, we have the full-throttle supporters’ bench: ANC President Jacob Zuma, ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, South African Communist Party chief Blade Nzimande, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi and now the ANC’s parliamentary communications whip, Ndabeni.

It’s not a case of the ANC not being sure of what it wants. It’s a case of a split ANC. There is no one ideologically unified ANC, there are many disparate tentacles and strands, shooting in different contested directions.

Meanwhile, the government launched its own newspaper at the end of March, Vuk’uzenzele, published by Manyi. It is in the interest of the independent media, (as in independent from political interference) that this government paper succeeds. Because if it does, and it gets its views, or the good news out there, it might leave the rest of the media free from the imposition of a media appeals tribunal.

What would happen if there was a media appeals tribunal? In a way, nothing much. Life would go on as normal, as in far too much corruption and a lack of accountability and service delivery. You just won’t find out about it. Journalists would probably self-censor, as they would be afraid of ANC censure. Basically, it would mean that Big Brother is not just watching but would be able to punish journalists for publishing unpalatables.

Glenda Daniels is advocacy co-ordinator at M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) and is on the Right2Know national working group.