Awareness of the importance of media ethics in the South African press is growing rapidly, the Press Council of South Africa heard at its quarterly meeting this month.
Executive Director Latiefa Mobara also outlined renewed public outreach activities and input into regulatory issues undertaken by her office in pursuit of its mandate to protect media freedom and improve journalism. She was reporting on the work undertaken for the Press Council of South Africa (PCSA) in the first four months of 2018, by herself, Press Ombud, Johan Retief, Public Advocate, Joe Latakgomo, and Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe.
“The office received 175 complaints during the period,” Mobara said. “Most were able to be resolved by mediation facilitated by Joe Latakgomo. 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 Ngoepe. We are satisfied that our mediation and arbitration system is working well,” she added.
Retief, who will be representing the PCSA at the Organisation of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors’ conference in Amsterdam next month, told Council that of the 23 complaints he had dismissed 10, partly or fully upheld another 10, mediated a solution to one, and dismissed the other two for being out of time. “The trend is that I find for the complainant in about 50% of cases and for the media in the other 50%,” he said. He noted that newsrooms were seeking guidance on the Press Code more than ever; that courses in media ethics are now readily available, and that editors’ co-operation with the system of self-regulation is “excellent”.
Chair of Appeals Judge Ngoepe reported that he had dismissed three of the five appeals, had resolved one, and had granted one. Public Advocate Latakgomo said he had been able to get most 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.
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.”
Mobara noted that many issues raised by the media fraternity, including the PCSA and its constituent members, the IABSA and the SA National Editors’ Forum, have been addressed in the current version of the Film and Publications Board’s amendment bill which has been forwarded by the National Assembly for endorsement by the NCOP. A particular victory for independent media regulation is that online publications that subscribe to the Press Code will also be exempt from the FPB Act.