The ANC plans to forge ahead with its investigation into a media appeals tribunal despite Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe saying last year that the idea was on ice pending an industry review of self-regulation mechanisms.
Last week's call by ANC MP Stella Ndabeni for the tribunal to be placed on Parliament's agenda took opponents by surprise. Ndabeni, the ANC whip in Parliament's communications committee, was speaking during the budget debate on the Government Communications and Information System. She repeated previous ANC claims of "irresponsible" reporting.
Despite Motlanthe's statement it appears the idea was never on ice. The Press Council of South Africa's review of the media industry's self-regulating mechanisms had barely begun in October when the ANC sent it a letter making it clear that the parliamentary investigation of the tribunal would go ahead.
The letter, of which the Mail & Guardian has a copy, welcomes the industry's own review, but says: "South Africa will investigate (through a public inquiry) the effectiveness of the existing self-regulatory mechanism — This investigation will be conducted by the democratically elected Parliament of the Republic."
The letter, signed by ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, is dated November 18, weeks after Motlanthe had made his remarks at a press conference following a summit between the government and the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef).
The press council's review has not yet been completed, but on Tuesday Mthembu reiterated that the Polokwane resolution which first mooted the tribunal was binding. "I can't talk about the planning and scheduling of Parliament. I don't know when Parliament will start the process. I can't speak of logistics. The resolution [from Polokwane] is binding," he said.
The deputy chairperson of Sanef's media freedom commission, Raymond Louw, commented this week that elements in the ANC wanted the tribunal. "There's a split in the ANC over this, but the Protection of Information Bill and the tribunal must be seen together. Both aim to control the press and what it discloses."
Louw said: "They're worried about the losses after the last election and saw their serious electioneering deficiencies. They need to come up with a mechanism before the Mangaung conference [in 2012] and the general election."
The resolution on the tribunal was taken at the ANC national conference in Polokwane in December 2007 when both the Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma camps had axes to grind with the press. Both camps felt that self-regulation, comprising the press council, ombud and appeals panel, was inadequate.
The resolution was endorsed and expanded by the ANC national general council in September last year.
Press ombud Joe Thloloe said this week that his office had nearly completed the report emanating from the press council's investigation. For about six months until April this year he and his deputy, Johan Retief, had attended countrywide public hearings on press regulation. The ANC attended none of these.
Thloloe said the ANC had sent a letter that "wished us well and reminded us of their resolution that they were still going to investigate a media appeals tribunal. They didn't submit anything, he said.
The press council met last week to look at the preliminary report and will meet again on June 23. The review process, Thloloe said, had been "independent of the ANC. We invited inputs from the public. Once we've completed the report we'll hand it to the constituent associations of the press council, which includes the Newspaper Association of South Africa, the Magazine Publishers' Association, Association of Independent Publishers, the Forum for Community Journalists and Sanef."
The Mail & Guardian spoke to Lumko Mtimde, chief executive of the Media Diversity and Development Agency and author of the discussion documents on the tribunal that were prepared for last year's ANC national general council meeting in Durban.
Who will run the tribunal?
" It will be independent of all interests, political and commercial, and will be set up through an Act of Parliament in the same way as the Independent Electoral Commission, [communications watchdog] Icasa and the Human Sciences Research Council."
Are there plans to register journalists?
"There will be no such thing. People who want to trivialise the idea [of the tribunal] have come up with the idea of registration."
What's wrong with self-regulation?
"It has no teeth. It's a process for itself."
What about the review of self-regulation that is under way?
"It's good that the review was done. Hopefully the outcomes of the review will be debated as part of a public inquiry."
What lies behind the tribunal concept?
"The idea is to strengthen and complement the self-regulation process. The resolution is clear -- read it and don't trivialise it."
What are the problems with the media?
"They are unfair to the ANC — inaccurate reporting. They write about the opposition winning, but it was the ANC that won the [municipal] election. Why can't the media acknowledge that the ANC did well?"
So now the media faces a double threat: the Protection of Information Bill as well as the media appeals tribunal?
"These two are separate processes -- they're not the same thing, they must be delinked. There is legislation on state security all over the world. If the issue is that it is too broad, then that must be the focus of the criticism."
Glenda Daniels is a member of the Right2Know national working group.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre's. www.amabhungane.co.za.
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