Transcript of President's reply in the national assembly, September 8 2010
14. The Leader of the Opposition (DA) to ask the President of the Republic:
Whether, with regard to his statement (details furnished) it is the Government's intention to establish a media tribunal; if not, what is the position in this regard; if so, what are the relevant details?
The PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC (Jacob Zuma): Hon Speaker, government has not discussed the proposed investigation into the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal. The proposal is included in the resolutions of the national conference of the ruling party which took place in Polokwane in 2007.
The resolution promotes media freedom within the context of the human rights ethos of the South African Constitution. It promotes the view that the right to freedom of expression should not be elevated above other equally important rights, especially the right to human dignity which is also enshrined in the Constitution.
The intention is that the tribunal would strengthen, complement and support the current self-regulatory institutions such as the Press Ombudsman's office. It is proposed that such a tribunal could be a statutory institution, established through an open, public and transparent process, and be made accountable to Parliament.
Parliament would be charged with the mandate to establish it in order to guarantee the principle of independence, objectivity, transparency, accountability and fairness.
The investigation would look at, amongst other things, the tribunal's role in dealing with matters or complaints expressed by citizens against the print media.
This would be in the same way as it happens in the case of broadcasting, through the Complaints and Compliance Committee of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, Icasa. The proposal states that the media and other stakeholders, including civil society, shall be consulted to ensure that the process is open, transparent and public.
It must be noted that this vibrant public debate has resulted in a decision, by the Press Council, to review its constitution with a view to strengthening its self-regulatory mechanisms.
We welcome the fact that this vibrant debate, which is raging in the public arena, has now also entered Parliament, thanks to this question from the hon member.
This country's commitment to media freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, and the government would never undertake any action that would be in conflict with the Constitution or our values of freedom and respect for basic human rights.
As the government, we welcome the ongoing debates in the spirit of promoting free exchanges of views and ideas to enable informed policy-making processes. I thank you, hon Speaker. [Applause.]
The LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION (Athol Trollip): Hon President, you stated in the recent interview with the Sunday Times, that:
"The reason we thought this proposed media tribunal was important was because the manner in which the media has been exercising its freedom began to worry people and there are many things that happened which we believed were unfair."
You started the answer by quoting from the contextualisation of media freedom at the Polokwane Conference. The further justification that has been put forward to support increased oversight of the media has been that:
"It has nothing to do with criticism of the government's policy, action or its person. It is not the question of that newspapers that have known of not printing liable for years, but the state cannot be defamed, it can only be placed at the disadvantage. South Africa cannot make a claim for its good name, but it has to guard against people in the country not dragging that good name through the mud themselves and stirring up feelings."
Does government consider this a fair collaboration of its sentiments regarding the establishment of a proposed media tribunal? If it does, it is important for this House to know that that second quote was made by then Prime Minister John Vorster at the opening of the National Party Congress of the Orange Free State on 18 September 1973. [Applause.] [Laughter.]
The PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC: [Laughter.] Hon Speaker, in the interview, I was answering questions relating to the ANC's proposed investigation about the Media Appeals Tribunal. What were the reasons and what informed the ANC? The point we are making is that the manner in which the media has been reporting over the years seems to be overstepping the boundaries that would guide it in terms of the freedom of the media.
There seemed to be no distinction between the respect of the dignity of other people and the manner in which they were reporting. Therefore, we are saying that when you see things happening in the media, you will agree with me that, particularly in the recent past, since the debate, there have been more apologies from the media. [Applause.]
The argument that we put across is that when the media reports about individuals or citizens, you will see huge headlines and the picture of a person. When they discover that in fact their report was erroneous, they agree to retract, but they don't give the same equal weight; their apology will be hidden somewhere hidden in a little column. That is not fair to an individual whose country has been told that this person did this and the media then discovers that they made a mistake. They don't project the issue in the same level. That is why we are saying it is unfair.
Sometimes when you take the matter to the Ombudsman, and he will then ask the media to apologise. But, the damage could be very big and in that you have no recourse. Therefore, you need the appeal and not to take the matter as it happens, but to deal with it as if you are not satisfied. You are a citizen and you have no recourse, therefore, there must be a way to appeal. We must establish this tribunal. It does not infringe on the freedom of the press, but it deals with the human rights of all citizens that if they feel that they've been indeed hurt by what it's being said about them - it could just not be an individual, but it could be your family or relatives - is erroneous, then when the media recognises, that indeed it, is a mistake, the response will be absolutely meaningless.
With regard to the existing media things - and this is over sixteen years now - we do need to investigate the possibility - and that's according to the resolution - of establishing a Media Appeal Tribunal, so that if you feel dissatisfied, there must be a recourse. That's a point we are making. Thank you. [Applause.]
Rev K R J MESHOE: Speaker and hon President, in the light of the fact that you said the Press Council is reviewing its constitution to strengthen the self-regulatory system, does the President still see the need to introduce this media tribunal? We also want to know what kind of recourse is the President referring to?
While we agree that when an apology is made, it should be visible, the President should also take into account that 37 editors have expressed their concern about the proposed media tribunal as well as the Protection of Information Bill that they believe threatens media freedom in the country.
The Right to Know Campaign has also been joined by hundreds of stalwarts from diverse backgrounds such as the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professor Kader Asmal and retired Constitutional Court Judge Richard Goldstone. Even the former Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils has expressed severe concerns about the Bill. So, we want to know, hon President, whether all this concerns are going to be accommodated, particularly because you said the Press Council is busy reviewing its own constitution. Is the review of this constitution not going to address the concerns that the President has just mentioned? Thank you.
The PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC: Hon Speaker, the Media Council is doing its own review which has not been done all the time until this issue was raised. We don't know what the conclusion would be. We have raised this issue very seriously after almost a decade when this media freedom has been exercised in our country.
We are concerned because a lot of pain has been caused by how the media has been reporting by certain individuals in the country. Whether the review is taking place or not, we have made this one, our own, Media Appeals Tribunal. That review we are talking about is not even completed in order for us to see what type of product which could maybe try to persuade one or two, it is still in the process.
For other people who have got views on this matter, it is their democratic right to have views about any matter. Those individuals, that you've just quoted, do have views about any matter. Therefore, the ANC calls everybody, society or organisations to have the right to do so. The problem that we have is that people do not bring any solution to the problems, but they are merely criticizing. We want people who have views to say this is what we think is the solution because you can't say that there is no problem. Even the media itself, since the debate, has in fact admitted that the South African media has gone over the line that has been drawn by your Constitution; other media said so, they have made a study.
The media, which monitors Africa, agrees by examples on what it has done. That is media not the ANC, much as it has a different view on whether the tribunal should be there or not, it says the media in South Africa, and it gives reasons why there are problems.
Therefore, you should debate the matter in Parliament. This Parliament would be informed by these views coming from other people, and that will inform the debate.
Finally, we will agree on what we think it needs to be done in the country. So, debate the matter and don't suppress the ANC when it exercises its freedom to express its views and make suggestions. Debate the matter. [Applause.]
Dr M G ORIANI-AMBROSINI: Through you, Mr Speaker. Mr President, there are things ... [Interjections.]
The SPEAKER: Order, hon members! Order!
Dr M G ORIANI-AMBROSINI: There are things that should not be debated. We would not be debating the policy of reintroduction of slavery or the policy of reintroduction of torture, but the same measure of human rights' culture. We should not even begin debating a policy of regulating the press, Sir. [Applause.]
Throughout the world, in the greatest times of crisis, at the height of Cold War, no country introduced any measure to suppress the press. There is a problem and the solution lies in the law against defamation.
My question to the President is, to which extend is the law of defamation not sufficient? I have been a victim of unfair press reporting many times, but I do stand with Voltaire when saying that "as much as I hate what you write about me, I would give my life so that you can continue to write . . ."
And why should, Mr President, if we are about to introduce a real culture of human right, not to take a leap of faith in letting the press grow. It's a new press, a new democratic press and let it grow. [Time expired.] [Applause.]
The PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC: [Laughter.] The hon member has a right to feel nice when the media is saying anything about him. That is his democratic right. [Laughter.] You see, the question of human rights to us is very important; we fought for it, including the right of the media to exercise its expression freely. Nobody can teach us about that. [Applause.] Nobody.
If you talk about the Act, whether it is sufficient or not, that was your real question because others were comments. Many South Africans are poor, they can't get a lawyer to go and defend them in that Act - whilst the Act is there - what happens to them? Are we still perpetuating the situation that the poor will always suffer because they are poor? Here, they would have an institution to go to ....[Interjections.]
The SPEAKER: Order, hon members!
The PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC: ...And the institution will be able to act on their behalf. So even if the Act is there, the practice is that many people can't have lawyers to take the media up if they think they are aggrieved to court because they don't have the means. We have to look after the rights of everybody and all citizens of this country as responsible people. [Applause.] Thank you, hon Speaker.
Ms A MDA: Mr President, it is good to have you be back. [Applause.] Would I agree with your sentiments that the freedom of this country and democracy that today we are talking under the democracy that was fought by the ANC, PAC, IFP and many other civic organisations? In the democracy that we are enjoying today, in it, at the centre and gist of it, is the independence and the media freedom, which must be protected by this democracy that the hon President is articulating, which was fought by members of this country and members of this august House.
My question to you, President, is that now that you and the Cabinet have expressed publicly your views on the proposed media tribunal, to what extent, therefore, is the government eager, ready and determined to defend the independence and the freedom of the media in this country? More especially, basing it louder on ANC, resent unlawful arrest of the Sunday Times journalist whose charges were dropped yesterday ... [Inaudible]. . . [Time expired.] . . . in the face of government. [Applause.]
The PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC: Hon Speaker, certainly the ANC and the government will defend the rights of the media. In fact, it would be the last to do so. We fought for it and we will always defend it. That does not make us succumb to what we believe is unfair reporting by the media. We will fight for the rights of the media equally as we will fight for the rights of every citizen of this country. Our position is very clear. Thank you, hon Speaker. [Applause.]
Source: Unrevised transcript, Hansard, National Assembly, Parliament, September 8 2010
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