Self-regulation is common in most democracies

Outgoing Press Ombudsman Edwin Linington recently presented his last report for the period January 1 2006 to July 31 2007. This is an edited version.

Outgoing Press Ombudsman Edwin Linington recently presented his last report for the period January 1 2006 to July 31 2007. This is an edited version.

The major event during the period under review was the launching of the Press Council to administer the office of the Press Ombudsman and Appeals Panel.

The new council includes members of the public who join representatives of the print media, with an active role in promoting public awareness of freedom of expression and the self-regulatory role of the press ombudsman and appeals panel.

I proposed the changes late last year and they were accepted and put into effect in July at the same time as my term expired and my successor, highly respected journalist Joe Thloloe, was appointed ombudsman and Judge Ralph Zulman, retiring from the Supreme Court of Appeal, took over from Judge Edwin King as chairman of the Appeals Panel.

Raymond Louw was elected chairman of the council.

With this distinguished trio at the head of the print media's self-regulatory mechanism, there can be no doubt that South Africa will be well served.

The aim of the change is to give the public a greater role in the resolution of complaints. For the first time, the ombudsman will be able to call on members of the Appeals Panel to help decide difficult complaints. This will speed up the process.

The Press Code was also changed to include prohibitions on publication of child pornography and hate speech.

All this took place against the background of criticism of the press and questioning of the meaning of freedom of expression, particularly exemplified by the latest bill to amend the Films and Publications Act. Among other things, the bill proposed to do away with the exemption from the Act that the members of the Newspaper Association had always enjoyed.

One reason was to prohibit child pornography. The print media objected strongly to what pre-publication censorship of a wide range of news by the Films and Publications Board would mean, including news which has nothing to do with child pornography. No finality had been reached on this.

Freedom of expression has always been part of South African common law. But as Chief Justice Pius Langa pointed out in a judgment when he was deputy chief justice: "We have recently emerged from a severely restrictive past where expression, especially political and artistic expression, was severely circumscribed by various legislative enactments."

It has been my experience over 10 years as ombudsman that as a consequence of that restrictive past, freedom of expression is neither well understood nor well received by many South Africans. Many complainants object on the basis that something or other is shocking or offensive, or overturns established notions of what is acceptable or politically correct.

Of course there is a limit, but that limit is far beyond what many in this country think, especially when they are the target of critical reportage and the revelation of uncomfortable facts.

Our Constitutional Court has put it beyond doubt that our Constitution "recognises that individuals in our society need to be able to hear, form and express opinions and views freely on a wide range of matters".

Judge O'Regan, in SANDF Union vs Minister of Defence and another, also said that "freedom of expression lies at the heart of a democracy. It is valuable for many reasons, including its instrumental functions as a guarantor of democracy, its implicit recognition and protection of the moral agency of individuals in our society and its facilitation of the search for truth by individuals and society generally".

Press self-regulation is common in most democracies.

Self-regulation follows logically from the press freedom guaranteed in the Constitution.

In essence, the newspapers voluntarily bind themselves to honour the Press Code and to abide by the decisions of the Press Council or ombudsman when they are alleged to have contravened the code.

In South Africa, the ombudsman is an alternative to the courts, as provided for in section 34 of the Constitution. The ombudsman is obliged to take into consideration when making decisions that not only violate the Press Code but also the human rights set out in the Constitution. The interpretation of those rights by the courts must be observed.

The whole purpose of the ombudsman's office is to provide a quick and inexpensive resolution for people who feel they have been wronged by something that has appeared in a newspaper. Complainants cannot get monetary relief - for that they must go to court, a lengthy and costly process. But most want the record put straight, which is what is done where justified.

There were 268 complaints in this period. The breakdown is: urban dailies 109; Sunday newspapers 62; community newspapers 42; tabloids 39; magazines 10 and weeklies six.

Most complainants were individuals, followed by businesses and institutions. Government, from the president down, have frequently used our services over the years, and have mostly succeeded in having their complaints upheld. In this period alone they numbered at least 18 prominent complainants.

Urban dailies attract most complaints, but as a ratio of their number, the Sunday newspapers are the target of most complaints. That does not mean they are the worst offenders: the brash style of some Sunday papers tends to raise emotions among some people and others object to controversial exposes of corruption and other untoward behaviour.

Most complaints are made on inaccuracy and imbalance. This has been the case over the years and arises from lack of application of the basics of journalism: check the facts, get corroboration, get and publish all sides of a story, present the story fairly and in a balanced way, be honest and correct mistakes.

For all the fuss about them, tabloids have not been the target of a matching volume of complaints. That is probably because they cause offence not to people who buy and read them, but to those who do not like bold street posters and headlines, and sometimes front page photographs.