Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Newsrooms are seeking guidance on the press code more than ever and editors’ co-operation with the system of self-regulation is "excellent", says press ombud Johan Retief.

For several years, the ANC has been pushing for the establishment of a media appeals tribunal, arguing that self-regulation is not enough to hold the media accountable. This has been seen by the media industry as a direct attack on media freedom.

In December, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, who also chairs the party subcommittee on communications, said MPs had been instructed during the party’s national conference to establish an inquiry to consider new ways to regulate the media.

Providing an update on the work done by his office and others, including the Press Council of SA in the first four months of 2018, Retief said that newsrooms were seeking guidance on the press code more than ever, and editors were eager to co-operate with the system of self-regulation. He also said courses in media ethics were now readily available.

The council, the ombud and the appeals panel are an independent co-regulatory mechanism set up by the print media to provide "impartial, expeditious and cost-effective adjudication to settle disputes" between publications and members of the public, over editorial content.

Reviewing complaints he had adjudicated, Retief said publications should be wary of reporting allegations as fact, and justifying the practice by saying the allegation was in the public domain, often arguing they had merely repeated what had been reported elsewhere, whether in mainstream media or on social media.

"Constant repetition of an allegation leads people to believe it — whether it is true or not. This is exacerbated if the media themselves start to accept allegations as true, whether they have been verified or not," he said.

He told the council that, "some serious exceptions aside", he is "more optimistic than ever about media ethics in the country", saying: "By far the greatest part of the South African press is more sensitive than ever about not causing unnecessary harm to innocent people." Press Council executive director Latiefa Mobara said the office had received 175 complaints during the first four months of 2018.

"Most were able to be resolved by mediation facilitated by Joe Latakgomo, the public advocate [at the council]. A unique feature of our independent, public co-regulation system allows the public advocate to help and guide complainants. He has received 100% compliance from editors enabling speedy, amicable resolution of most complaints.

"Only 23 complaints were referred to press ombud Johan Retief during the period and there were five appeals of ombud rulings referred to Judge [Bernard] Ngoepe. We are satisfied that our mediation and arbitration system is working well," Mobara said.

Ngoepe, the chair of appeals, reported that he had dismissed three of the five appeals, resolved one and granted one.

Latakgomo said he had been able to get most of the complaints resolved because "media have acknowledged when they have been wrong and have voluntarily offered to publish corrections or retractions".

"We often end up with ‘happy chappies’ on both sides, and the complimentary notes sent on resolution are encouraging," he said.