Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is deeply concerned about the disproportionate and unbalanced accusations about the print media and its journalists made by the ANC in its discussion document: 2010 – Media Transformation, ownership and diversity.
MMA acknowledges that there are key issues facing the print media:
- Concentration of ownership vs. the need for diversity of ownership
- Commercial imperatives and sensationalism at the expense of the public interest
- The need to strengthen the current self-regulatory system
- Equality and accessibility
- Media freedom accompanied by responsible and ethical reporting
The ANC discussion document presents no evidence in support its call for a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT). Instead it opts for assertion and rhetoric
The document unambiguously accuses the media of irresponsible and unfair reporting. However it could be accused of doing the very thing that it condemns, making unsubstantiated accusations:
- It suggests that Parliament would appoint those sitting on a MAT: “this will guarantee independence, transparency, accountability and fairness” (point 106). This argument is flawed as Parliament is currently dominated by the ANC and as such, is naturally weighted in favour of this party and its policies.
- The document asserts that the Press Ombudsman is not independent as he is a former journalist. It suggests he therefore demonstrates bias towards the media (point 98). However it provides no proof to back up this assertion, such as past rulings by the Press Ombudsman that would point to an inherent bias.
- The ANC claims that citizens have complained to it that they have been victims of unfair and unsatisfactory decisions by the system currently in place (point 88). Again there are no statistics or other evidence provided to support this claim.
- According to this document a “…cursory scan on the print media reveals an astonishing degree of dishonesty, lack of professional integrity and lack of independence. Editorials distancing the paper from these acts and apologies which are never given due prominence and mostly which has to be forced through the press ombudsman are not sufficient in dealing with this ill” (point 58). That the ANC concedes that this serious allegation is based on a “cursory glance” is simply unacceptable. It is MMA’s experience, after 17 years monitoring the media, that while violations occur, for the most part these allegations are simply untrue. However to ensure that we have a clear picture of media behaviour MMA is about to begin a monitoring project that will give us concrete evidence about media performance, identifying failures as well as strengths, which ought to form the basis of future change.
In seeking to debate a MAT we must adopt a holistic approach and carefully balance all arguments. Such a debate cannot continue on the basis of fear mongering and political threats.
The document says: “As South Africans we know the full meaning of unregulated power and unbridled capitalism of the barons experienced by other societies through time” (point 59 and 60). However this is one side of the argument. We also know only too well the dangers of the over-regulation of print media.
Commercial imperatives and sensationalism must not be at the expense of the public interest and a diversity of views. However this concept must not be used as a means to condone undue control of the media. Self regulation needs to be strengthened rather than South Africa adopting a course of action that will, inadvertently or otherwise, muzzle the media. There must be a clear distinction between the media’s democratic role of being a watchdog of those in power and on the other hand irresponsible and unethical reporting.
Of course the media could do better. MMA supports efforts to improve and encourage greater public ownership of the press code, to ensure that the public is empowered to access an effective and transparent complaints procedure and that justice is done and is seen to be done.
A popular legal adage says “hard cases make bad law”. We need to make sure that a minority of instances of questionable, sensational or dubious reporting does not lead us to adopt a course of action that future generations will regret. Media is essential to the development and deepening of democracy, and a media with faults is better than a media muzzled.
For further comment please contact:
William Bird +27 (0)82 887 1370
Prinola Govenden +27 (0)72 708 1320