Effectiveness of press Ombud questioned

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The role of the Press Council and Ombudsman came under close scrutiny on the second day of the Press Freedom Commission's (PFC) hearings in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes told the PFC that many media houses did not take the role of the two seriously enough.

“On one hand some, like us, are terribly nervous about facing the Ombudsman. Others just don't give a fig,” he said.

“We take it very seriously and it often inflects the conversations we have in the newsroom. It has made us tighten up our stories.”

Earlier, The Star's editor Moegsien Williams said a “space fine” should be imposed on newspapers as a form of sanction by the Press Council.

He said such a fine, prescribing how much space a publication should set aside for an apology, would give the Ombudsman “sharper teeth”.

At the same time, the media would still be allowed the media to regulate themselves.

“If a monetary fine is issued, newspapers will just include a certain amount for fines in their yearly budget. It will be like water on a duck's back,” he said.

“The beautiful thing of a space fine is that the entire organisation, including the management of newspapers, will be involved. It puts a greater pressure on the editorial staff to get things right.”

City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, who spoke on behalf of Media24, said she was not always happy with the Ombudsman's decisions, but knew that following the Press Code made her a better journalist and editor.

“We once called a culvert a low-lying bridge. The ombud finds fault no matter how trivial, and we have to adhere to it. Our reporters have now had some engineering training, so now we will call a culvert, a culvert,” she joked.

She said the City Press had issued a page-two apology for the error. It had also issued a front page apology for a story on ANC treasurer general Mathews Phosa.

“Phosa said the ruling and the front page apology had made amends and 1/8had 3/8 set things right,” she said.

The African National Congress said the Council and Ombudsman were ineffective and that an independent media appeals tribunal was the most effective way to regulate print media.

“We want to be clear: we are advocating an independent regulation of the media, unencumbered by commercial or political party interests,” ANC executive committee member Jessie Duarte said.

She was joined by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and party spokesman Jackson Mthembu at the PFC's public hearing.

Mthembu suggested that Parliament look into the possibility of forming an independent body in the same vein as the office of the Public Protector and Independent Electoral Commission.

“Such a body should not have a vested interest in business, politics or the media itself,” he said.

The Democratic Alliance said in a statement on Tuesday that it would oppose the creation of a media appeals tribunal should it be brought to Parliament for debate.

“The ANC has clearly placed the establishment of a media appeals tribunal firmly back on the agenda,” spokesman Mmusi Maimane said.

“Except, this time it has been brought back under the guise that it would be independent from political interference.”

The PFC is scheduled to hear the final round of oral submissions on Wednesday, February 01, 2012.

The commission is chaired by retired chief justice Pius Langa.

Hearings have already been held in Cape Town and Durban. - Sapa



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