Kudos to Press Council for independent guardianship of journalistic integrity

Picture: Werner Beukes / SAPA

Picture: Werner Beukes / SAPA

Published Jul 2, 2024



The lifeblood of any functioning democracy is a free, functional and independent media. It’s a premise that underpinned the founding of the new South Africa 30 years ago and was duly enshrined in the constitution that guides us to this day.

One of the key pillars to an independent media is effective self-regulation. Properly established and consistently maintained, self-regulation is the greatest bulwark against state interference and the ominous spectre of official censorship and registration of journalists that are the hallmarks of repressive regimes the world over.

South Africa’s media self-regulation is housed within the Press Council and guided by the tenets of the Press Code, which allows for members of the public to approach the Press Ombud or the Appeals Panel with their grievances. These are then probed and, if found to be grounded, the member publication or platform – for this is a print and internet, not broadcast forum – is sanctioned.

No editor nor journalist welcomes being sanctioned, but sanctions are at the heart of the self-regulation process. Those who hold society to account, must themselves be held to the same professional standards that they themselves have agreed to. It is the epitome of fairness, which is why the recent rulings by first the Press Ombud and then the Press Appeals Council are so important to this principle.

In a world in which fake news and disinformation are on the increase, metastasizing with catastrophic effect if left unchecked, it has become an existential condition for professional media to hold themselves to the highest standard – which starts with reporting the facts. In stories which are negative towards the subject, that person or institution has to be given the opportunity to tell their side of the story, before the article is published to allowing the readers to draw their own conclusions.

Getting the facts straight is important too for another reason, as the legendary editor of the Manchester Guardian CP Scott said more than a century ago: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. The Press Code protects commentary, but only if based on facts that are true or believed to be true. It's increasingly important for all of us to remember in an age where access to smart phones makes us all citizen journalists, that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.

The code enjoins its members to report truthfully, accurately and fairly – and to clearly delineate news reportage from commentary, things that Vrye Weekblad failed to do. Almost a year ago, the publication, founded and run by Max du Preez, published two reports within a week of each other effectively claiming that Ivor Ichikowitz had orchestrated the African Ukraine peace initiative at the behest of the Kremlin, due to Ichikowitz’s alleged closeness with President Vladimir Putin.

The publication further “speculated” that the Russian Lady R freighter had docked at the Simonstown Naval Base to secretly load arms and materiel manufactured by Paramount, the privately owned aerospace and defence consortium that Ichikowitz founded 30 years ago. Vrye Weekblad also wrongly conflated Paramount with a wholly unrelated company of the same name based in Russia, that does imports and exports.

When Paramount and the Ichikowitz Family Foundation complained to the publication, Vrye Weekblad ran the Paramount statement in full, but provided “context” effectively doubling down on the original libel. Ichikowitz then sought relief from the Press Ombud, who ruled that the basic principles of journalism demanded that comment be sought from the subject of a critical story about them before publishing the damaging report.

As the deputy Press Ombud said at the time; this journalistic obligation to tell the other side should not be relegated to a right of reply, because it effectively closes the stable door after the horse has bolted and the damage to a person’s reputation has been done. Publishing both sides of a critical story about a person “would enable readers to see both views”, the ombud noted, ordering Vrye Weekblad to apologise and correct the wrongful reporting. Paramount however took certain issues in the ruling on appeal to the Appeals Panel of the Press Council, especially in areas where Vrye Weekblad had overreached itself, over-interpreting certain facts and projecting its own outcomes upon them when a basic inquiry would have proved this wasn’t the case.

As the Appeals Panel chair Judge Bernard Ngoepe noted, speculation must be handled with care ; attributed to sources and verified to ensure that it is accurate to avoid creating misleading narratives and causing harm. Had Vrye Weekblad actually reached out for comment before publishing, the story would have looked very different because the “facts” used to craft the argument would have been off-set by a different narrative that would have balanced the claims in the report and allowed its readers to make up their own minds.

Vrye Weekblad’s defence that asking for comment might have triggered Ichikowitz to brief lawyers to have the story interdicted was correctly thrown out by Judge Ngoepe. The fear of something happening, which as the record shows in Ichikowitz’s case is totally groundless, cannot release journalists from this basic journalistic responsibility of seeking comment from the party who would be injured by the publication of a critical story about them and which in this case was effectively untested rumour and fevered, but ultimately baseless, conspiracies.

Ichikowitz is no Putin confidant, Paramount has not supplied any military equipment to Russia and even less loaded them onto secretive Russian freighters. Pertinently Paramount has also not sold arms to the Saudi Arabian government. Vrye Weekblad acknowledged this, retracted the statements and apologised, as Judge Ngoepe directed.

For media to survive and thrive in this ever changing world of ours, the storytellers must be credible. The only way to achieve that is by reporting fairly and objectively and, even more importantly, subjecting themselves to the same kind of rigorous self-examination as the subjects of their stories – and being held equally accountable in the process. The ruling and the upholding of the subsequent appeal this year are vital bulwarks for a young and evolving democracy such as ours – indeed, they are beacons of global significance.

The Press Council and its various organs have proved themselves once again to be independent, transparent, fair and highly credible guardians of journalistic integrity, proving the worth of industry self-regulation rather than the very dangerous Pandora’s Box of state regulation and potential censorship.

Vic Zazeraj is a retired South Africa ambassador and former Group Executive of Paramount Group. Picture: Supplied

* Vic Zazeraj is a retired South Africa ambassador and former Group Executive of Paramount Group.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.