Independent Media’s internal Ombud exists to sustain press freedom

By Yogas Nair, Moleboheng Mosia Time of article published Jun 7, 2021

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MEDIA law guru Dario Milo has got it all wrong. Independent Media’s internal Ombud’s office does have teeth. It operates exactly like the Press Council of South Africa, consisting of highly experienced panel members who act without fear or favour.

Independent Media’s Ombud exists to help foster transparency and accountability in news outlets. Concomitantly, Independent’s Ombud allows the audience to feel that they are a part of the newsgathering and dissemination process and that their voice is listened to and taken seriously.

In a recent article in the Daily Maverick, Dario Milo, a partner at Webber Wentzel attorneys and adjunct professor at Wits University, says Independent Media should consider whether its absence from the Press Council is doing it more harm than good.

Milo who acted for businesswoman, banker and corporate executive, Maria Ramos, when she successfully sued the Star for defamation, clearly believes that with self-regulation, Independent Media cannot hold itself to account.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I strongly disagree. Independent media’s Ombud is rooted in transparency. And from transparency flows trust and loyalty.

We strive to show our readers that we care about accuracy and fairness. We may not always get it right, and when we are wrong, we will not hesitate to express regret and say sorry. Trusted journalism serves as an engine for democracy.

Since taking office as the Group Ombud, we have successfully mediated and adjudicated on several matters – of which all judgments are uploaded in full onto our website.

It is a transparent process, with editors being held to account. Nothing different from the purpose of the Press Council of South Africa.

In the case of the Ramos matter, internal processes are underway to deal with those responsible for publishing the Ramos story. Like individuals in other professions, journalists too, make mistakes.

When I assumed the position of Internal Press Ombud at Independent Media, I gave myself a deadline to get to full productivity.

The first 100 days are vital whether you are an experienced leader taking on a new role or someone becoming a leader for the first time. This is the period during which you have the opportunity to move the organisation in a modified direction; direct and energise your team; halt past bad practices; and display your strengths and style of management.

I am confident to proclaim that the workflow is gaining momentum; and my team is making the task of leadership easier and more rewarding.

Reminding myself of my role as Independent’s Press Ombud, I often recite the words of the legendary French philosopher Voltaire, who in defending freedom of expression, said: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it.”

It is against this bulwark of liberal thought that I hold the reins of the Office of the Independent Group Ombud. I see self-regulation and the promotion of quality journalism as additional safeguards of media freedom and even of media power.

Excessive regulation, extreme censorship and banning of media by the apartheid government is now history. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in our Constitution.

For democracy to work, the press has to be free. Journalists must not be the servants of vested interests. They must serve the interests of the public and be conduits of reliable information. The media must uphold accuracy, independence, fairness, impartiality and accountability.

And it is accountability that defines professionalism and responsible journalism. When we commit errors, we must correct them. As a media group, we must listen to the concerns of our audience, without whom we cannot exist. We must always provide remedies when we are unfair.

Media self-regulation and self-correction entrench the media’s acceptance of their share of responsibility for the quality of public discourse in the nation, while fully preserving their editorial autonomy in shaping it.

A self-regulatory body such as the Office of the Independent Group Ombud determines the boundaries between the legitimate rights of a free press and the legitimate rights of people who attract media attention.

It does this by examining complaints against an agreed code of ethics and judging whether its rules have been broken. Thus, it guides journalists and the public on what practices are acceptable and the standards expected of news outlets. By dealing with complaints, professional standards can be raised.

Numerous studies have shown that an internal Ombud system, such as the Internal Press Ombud at Independent Media, functioning through a sound ethical code, can drastically protect individual media titles against libel cases.

By promoting standards, self-regulation helps maintain the media’s credibility with the public.

It is quite natural for media consumers to seek guarantees about the value of journalists’ information. Codes of ethics provide guidance on editorial standards, while complaint mechanisms offer a kind of “quality insurance”.

All journalists employed by Independent Media must abide by the group’s Code of Ethics. If journalists work according to agreed ethical standards of behaviour – based on accuracy, fairness, independence and accountability – they are less likely to fall foul of the law. Indeed, codes of ethics ensure that press freedom prevails.

The culture of public communication has seen dramatic changes in the way information is received and disseminated. However, trust and confidence in ethical journalism remain as the cornerstones of responsible media organisations.

The Office of the Independent Group Ombud will strive to create credible self-regulation to sustain the respect of our audience. When media provide a process by which the audience, or specifically those subject to media scrutiny, are given a chance to air their complaints, it builds trust and improves the media’s reputation.

As the Ombud, I will continually place high value on fact-checking, objectivity and balanced reporting. My team of adjudicators possesses personal and professional moral integrity and are committed to upholding journalistic standards and defending society’s right to receive objective information.

Our media titles will accept criticism and provide the right of reply and rectification to anybody who feels affronted or is directly affected by inaccurate or scurrilous information.

The use of provocative, insulting and aggressive language is off-limits. We will work within the parameters of the law and will correct mistakes without stalling.

Self-regulation of what we do, and how we do it, can only further develop social trust and provide greater support for freedom of expression.

After all, as media, we seek to hold other parties to account and must also subject ourselves to checks and balances to uphold public trust.

*Yogas Nair is Independent Media Group Ombud and Moleboheng Mosia is an adjudication panel member.

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