Towards press freedom through self–regulation : trends in South African press ombudsman cases (August 2007 – August 2011)
Edwards, Gloria Dorothea Elizabeth
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Recent attacks on media freedom in South Africa, that includes the ruling ANC party’s proposal for statutory regulation of the press, have seen press self-regulation fiercely contested and the ombudsman of the Press Council of South Africa (PCSA) defending the press’ constitutional right to freedom of expression. Extensive arguments have been made by government, the public and the press for other forms of press regulation, such as statutory and independent co-regulation. In addition no accurate, detailed trends arising from complaints the ombudsman has dealt with in recent years, have been freely available on which arguments in such a debate could be based. This research analyses the complaints dealt with by the press ombudsman in recent years in order to evaluate the present self-regulatory system, which is based primarily on the theories of freedom of expression and social responsibility of the press. The analyses involves determining what trends exist in complaints cases that the ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, has dealt with since he took office in August 2007, until August 2011 when a Review of his office was published by the PCSA. The study takes a qualitative approach, with some degree of quantification, and utilises document analysis and qualitative content analysis as data collection methods to analyse 593 cases, with specific focus on government complaints which form 15% of all cases analysed. The findings reflect that the ombudsman’s approach in dealing with complaints was fair, that he displayed intolerance for transgressions and that his rulings were free of any obvious bias. This is evident in, amongst other findings, the very few appeals lodged against his rulings and even less successful appeals. In addition the press often voluntarily corrected their mistakes before prompted by the ombudsman. The findings also dispel some of the ANC’s criticisms that have led to its calls for statutory press regulation, such as the public and government’s acceptance of the self-regulation system, complaints from government largely having involved accuracy and not privacy as the ANC claimed, and that government’s failure to sign the legal waiver often resulted in cases being dismissed. The findings also point to a significant increase in complaints, specifically from government, in the year 2010, which is the year in which the ANC renewed its calls for statutory regulation. This does not necessarily reflect a sudden decline in the quality of journalism but rather indicates that the ruling party differed fundamentally in its philosophical thinking regarding the press, which was perhaps informed by a developmental model of the press rather than the social responsibility model on which the present system is based. In this sense the government sees it fit to interfere or censor the press if it feels the system is not performing. The findings show the ombudsman’s office lacked proper record-keeping from which accurate statistics could be derived, leaving a gap for criticism against the ombudsman. In addition, most often complaints against newspapers involved accuracy and fairness (such as not asking for comment). As is evident in several complaints falling outside the ombudsman’s mandate and the high number of dismissed cases, the findings also point to a lack of awareness or information of the system and of the ombudsman’s roles. In light of the theoretical frameworks that set out how the self-regulation system, which is entrenched in the notion of press freedom, can enhance the cause of press freedom by its ombudsman enforcing a socially responsible Press Code, the findings ultimately lead to the conclusion that the ombudsman’s work has advanced the cause of press freedom in South Africa during the research period.
- Humanities 
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