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Make jobs and economic growth the tests for media tribunal

The governing party’s proposed media appeals tribunal will be a rare discussion point attracting some consensus at its National General Council (NGC) meeting in Durban this week. If it was thought that the tribunal was supported when it first emerged at Polokwane due to the media’s treatment of ANC President Jacob Zuma during his rape and corruption trials, then the band of the aggrieved could only have grown.

Among them will now count numerous ministers fingered for their expensive taste in hotels and cars; certain Members of Parliament (MPs) embarrassed for their apparent lack of aptitude; various provincial politicians who have allegedly committed anything from fraud to murder and, party cadres in the ANCYL, the police and elsewhere who are supposed to have either become so-called “tenderpreneurs” or who have allegedly rigged tenders in favour of their comrades.

After having surfaced in December 2007, the tribunal idea was only resurrected in the public domain by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande early in July of 2010. One can speculate why it was left for dead. Two things are certain, though:

1) The tribunal is certainly deflecting a lot of attention away from a number of other problematic issues, such as lobbying for new leadership in 2012, some of the more radical economic policy proposals put forward by Cosatu, the push for the nationalisation of mines by the ANCYL and the host of Polokwane resolutions that have not yet been implemented by the ANC in government.

2) Also, the tribunal is bringing some semblance of unity to the gathering — unity against a common enemy, that is.

Plenty of misconceptions surround support for the tribunal. Some believe that media ownership automatically go hand in hand with full and direct editorial control that needs no acquaintance with the needs and wants of its consumers/readers. Some fail to see that if a code was dictated to the print media from outside its own ranks — say by government — it would automatically not be free. Others believe that the tribunal is necessary so that Parliament could demand briefings from the media, when Parliament in fact already has powers of subpoena and has a captive press gallery within its precinct!

Concerning anomalies cast further aspersions over the true motivation behind the tribunal:

• While the ruling party was quite willing to use allegations of “brown envelope journalism” (ie biased reporting in exchange for payment) against Ebrahim Rasool to justify the resurrection of the tribunal idea, it simultaneously rewarded the former Western Cape premier with a senior diplomatic posting.

• The ruling party has never been able to furnish details of cases of inadequate responses by the Press Ombud. In terms of the one case given as an example, involving a complaint by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, it was found that the case was dealt with and that the ruling was in favour of the ANC.

• From within the tripartite alliance, the proposed tribunal has been recognised as an inappropriate vehicle to deal with oppositional attitudes or “watchdog zealotry” pervading the print media, issues relating to ownership, diversity and democratisation or, the determination of editorial content in terms of profit maximisation.

• Finally, the self-regulation system of the press is often criticised for the cost and lack of expedience involved with recourse outside of what it could offer, while this is clearly due to inefficiencies in the judicial system, for which government is ultimately responsible.

More than 700 publications voluntarily submit to the South African Press Code and the system of self-regulation. Given the huge amount of content that gets published without ever attracting a complaint, there should be careful consideration of the extent to which any political dissatisfaction with the self-regulation system is borne out by a lack of satisfaction from other interest groups. The suspicion is that in relation to the overall levels of satisfaction, the proposed tribunal is a completely disproportionate response.

Many of these publications provide valuable, high-quality information that support business growth and job creation, which ads credence to the contention that a free press provides fuel for a free economy to grow and jobs to be created. This is especially so in developing countries. Erring on the side of a free and relatively responsible, self-regulated press should therefore clearly be regarded as the preferable option. In fact, given the little development that the tribunal proposal has seen since rearing its head in Polokwane, the Durban NGC could probably lay claim to making a bit of history if it added the promotion of economic growth and jobs as key tests for whether the tribunal should go ahead or not. I bet if they did, it would not.