In a democracy the media should regulate themselves

BUSINESS Leadership South Africa takes as its departure point that freedom of the press is the lifeblood of both markets and democracies and the free dissemination of information and debate of opinion are the bedrock of a free society.

The media play a key role in democracies of holding to account all actors in society, from both the public and private sector, including business.
It is for this reason that media freedom is enshrined in the South African constitution.
Two instruments have been proposed by the African National Congress (ANC) to deal with perceived shortcomings of the media and access to sensitive information. The media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill.
At present, the tribunal is an idea proposed in a resolution of the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007. The resolution calls for an investigation of the establishment of such a body.
It also directs that the investigation “consider the desirability that such a (tribunal) be a statutory institution, established through an open, public and transparent process, and be made accountable to parliament”.
The idea of a statutory body, created by law and appointed by the political executive raises the prospect of a media answerable to political bosses.
The necessary tension between media and politics is well illustrated by the recent exposure (using leaked documents) by a single newspaper of British parliamentary expense abuses.
If that paper were “answerable to parliament”, the exposure may very well never have happened.
The balancing of freedom of expression with the rights of both governments and citizens is not easy. There are other areas of society where similar difficult balances must be struck.
As president Jacob Zuma noted in his recent weekly letter: “All institutions, even parliament, have mechanisms in place to keep them in check. Almost all professions have similar mechanisms from teachers to architects, doctors, engineers, politicians, lawyers and others.”
Indeed, South Africa has a rich tradition of self-regulation, rather than statutory regulation. The models of self-regulation vary. In some cases, the regulators are appointed by the industry or profession itself; in others they are fully independent of the parties being regulated, as in the case of the ombudsman for the life insurance industry.
The press council has the job of ensuring that the print media abide by a detailed code of conduct, and offer adequate redress to parties when newspapers have not observed this code.
Equally, the Protection of Information Bill does not have the checks and balances that other democracies have in dealing with the question of sensitive public information, and the definition of key concepts — such as the national interest — is so wide as to allow all tiers of the government to keep from public scrutiny any information that they wish.
The government has just launched a commendable initiative to root out corruption in the public sector. However, this cannot and will not be successful unless it is subjected to public scrutiny, with the media playing a central role.
Business should be, and is, subjected to the same scrutiny as the public sector — whether it be for competition offences, unethical behaviour, corrupt tendering or abuse of black economic empowerment. Business leaders are just as tempted to avoid scrutiny and are often as angry and frustrated by poor or inaccurate media coverage.
However, they are no more justified than their public-sector counterparts in shooting the messenger.
US Ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, has reminded us of US president Barack Obama’s recent remarks to the Young African Leaders Forum: “One of the wonderful things about the US is that … there are often times when I get frustrated, when I think I know more than some of my critics. Yet, we have institutionalised the notion that those critics have every right to criticise me, no matter how unreasonable I think they may be.”
As business leaders, we are opposed to media supervision or regulation in which the government or parliament is involved. Print media in South Africa, as is the case in most industrial democracies, should regulate themselves.
But we would like to hear the print media acknowledge that they could do a much better job of it and make concrete proposals in this regard. Reporting standards are often poor and the print media’s capacity for introspection is unsatisfactory.
Newspapers seem unaware of the personal damage and pain that inaccurate reporting can cause, especially to people who cannot easily defend themselves in public.
In South Africa’s young democracy, the risks of the statutory control of the media seem unacceptably high. We would urge both politicians and the media to debate the existing system of self-regulation and how this could be made more effective. Precisely to build on the spirit of national unity evident during the Fifa World Cup, this debate needs to clearly affirm the freedoms enshrined in our constitution and seek systems of accountability and responsibility fully consistent with these freedoms.
The proposed media appeals tribunal and the excessively restrictive clauses in the Protection of Information Bill are not good starting points for this debate, and they should be withdrawn.
A second public controversy that has invited the doomsayers back to our shores has arisen around disputes in the awards of mining licences. As with media regulation, the issues here are complex. The law provides for different licences in respect of mineral products. Often the process of mining does not. This is a complexity present in all mineral rights dispensations.
The process of converting old order rights to new order rights has added to this complexity and has also imposed a huge administrative burden on the Department of Mineral Resources.
The controversy over the allocation of prospecting rights has undermined the sense of investment security — not just in mining, but in the country as a whole.
What is needed in mining, as with all sectors of our economy, is a clear and transparent set of rules, applied consistently with disputes (which are inevitable) resolved relatively quickly and transparently through our courts.
The move of the Department of Mineral Resources to clarify the law, and also review administrative processes will, with full industry and stakeholder involvement, move us in this direction.
All countries face the problem of avoiding, detecting, exposing and punishing corruption all the time. Corruption is a cancer that undermines public morality and destroys the competence of and confidence in public institutions. Corruption begins when citizens — individual and corporate — offer to reward political interference in public administration.
There is much that governments can and must do to prevent this.
However, an at least equal responsibility rests on the shoulders of citizens not to seek such influence.
l Spicer is CEO and Godsell is chairman of Business Leadership SA. –– Business Day.

Top