What the Press Freedom Commission recommends

Report proposes widening role of public in regulatory system

Executive Summary of the Press Freedom Commission's Report on Press Regulation in South Africa, April 25 2012

The Print Media SA (PMSA) and the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) set up the Press Freedom Commission (PFC), a body of nine persons selected from outside the media community, as part of the media organisations' work to review the system of press regulation in South Africa. Chaired by Honourable former Chief Justice of South Africa Pius Langa, the independent PFC was inaugurated in July 2011 with the task to complete its work and submit its report by March 2012.

According to the Terms of Reference, the primary objective of the PFC was to ensure press freedom in support of enhancing our democracy which is founded on human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. The secondary objective was to research the regulation of specifically print media, locally and globally.

Self-regulation, co-regulation, independent regulation and state regulation were examined.

From the expansive studies conducted, the PFC concludes that an independent co-regulatory mechanism, not including state participation, will best serve press freedom in the country. This will also enhance the role, accountability and responsibility of the press in the promotion of the values of a free and democratic South Africa, and in upholding the rights, dignity and legitimate interests of the people.

To be an effective and responsible regulatory system, this mechanism must manifest administrative fairness and institutional independence from the industry it is to regulate. It must also ensure optimal accessibility by removing the waiver requirements of complainants and removing the characterisation of the complaints procedure as arbitration.

Hence, the Commissioners recommend a system of co-regulation that is independent of government, composed mostly by persons drawn from various sections of the public outside of the press industry. This is designed to ensure the system's independence from the subjective inclinations and sentiments of the press profession and business. The preference for this mechanism is in response to the expressed public dissatisfaction with the current system and with the public's rejection of government involvement in press regulation.

Independent co-regulation can be defined as: a system of press regulation that involves public and press participation with a predominant public membership but without State or government participation. It is accountable to the public.

For considerable sections of the public, a vexing issue of the current regulatory system is the perceived ineffectiveness of the sanctions applied against press infractions. The Commissioners recommend a revised regime of sanctions based on a hierarchy of infractions and their corresponding sanctions. The report introduces a scale of "space fines" for offences pertaining to content of the press and "monetary fines" for guilty publications that flout the summons and rulings of the Ombudsman.

A critical and new dimension that the PFC introduces into the regulatory framework is the subject of how the press must handle children and issues concerning children. This section provides an elaborate guide on protecting the dignity, rights, privacy, image and interests of children. The report therefore expands and improves the provisions on children in the current Press Code.

The Commission considered the issue of "media transformation" (structural and content) because significant sections of the society consider it important in the overall democratisation of the new South Africa, and view ownership as having an influence on content. The PFC's recommendations include considerations for content diversification, skills development and training, a media charter and support for community newspapers.

In fulfillment of these proposals, the PFC has recommended significant changes in the governance of the PCSA, in its composition and appointment processes, in the Appeals Panel, as well as in the Complaints Procedure.

The Commission also makes proposals to the Press Code for strengthening ethical standards.

Thus, the Commission's recommendations:

  • Widen the role of the public in the regulatory system by proposing that there are more members of the public (7) than media industry (5) in the PCSA;
  • Similarly strengthen the participation of the public in the Appeals Panel by increasing the number of public members above that of press members;
  • Widen accessibility by limiting the Public Advocate's sole power of deciding what complaints are eligible for hearing;
  • Widen accessibility to the adjudicating system by expunging the waiver requirement of complainants;
  • Strengthen public access to the regulatory system by widening the basis of third party complaints;
  • Strengthen the protection of children and their rights, dignity, privacy, image and interests;
  • Strengthen the Press Code with regard to the right of reply and on court reporting;
  • Revise the regime of sanctions based on a hierarchy of infractions and their corresponding sanctions, with a scale of "space fines" and "monetary fines"; and 
  • Suggest considerations for content diversification, skills development and training, a media charter and support for community newspapers.

The full report can be accessed here - PDF.

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