Amid all the noise around the ANC succession contest, other important issues are on the table at the party's Polokwane conference.  Among them is a set of disturbing ideas on the media including a proposal for a tribunal, writes the Mail & Guardian in an editorial.  Don't go there, the paper urges ANC delegates.

The Mail & Guardian writes in an editorial:

In the hubbub of the succession fight, a measure most inimical to our democracy seems set to pass through the ANC’s conference — and this is the ruling party’s recommendation that could bind government to new restrictions on the media.

With days to go before the Polokwane meeting, the M&G asks the 4 000 delegates to think very carefully about how they proceed on this explosive issue.

This is not special-interest pleading and has nothing to do with newspaper sales or ramping up advertising sales for private-sector broadcasters. South Africa’s open media dispensation is one of the great victories of its democratic revolution, for which the ANC deserves praise. It would be tragic if the party of liberation sets the country on the road to media repression. For all its faults, the media have shown that they are an ally of democracy by providing a forum for all the debates that the road to Polokwane has demanded.

Among the resolutions of the ANC’s June policy summit — set for endorsement at Polokwane — was a motion calling for a review of media self-regulation and an investigation into the possibility of establishing a media tribunal. The stated aim is to “safeguard and promote the rights of all South Africans”.

There are no details about the proposed tribunal’s composition and powers, but the drift is clear: state appointees would sit in judgement on the private media and what they publish. The dangers are obvious. The apparatchiks would inevitably seek to protect the reputations of politicians and other bigwigs under the guise of enforcing their rights to privacy and dignity, even when media reports are true and in the public interest.

This was foreshadowed in the outcry over the Sunday Times’s coverage of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang; and in the unhappiness about media exposés of the allegedly bent ways of ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma and police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi. All of these have come to inform the Polokwane conference; South Africa is richer for knowing about each of them.

What is particularly worrying is that the left, which says it wants to deepen democracy, is clamouring for controls. This has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with the petty pique of leaders like Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi over media reports about them and their hero, Jacob Zuma.

Media outlets are fallible human institutions which make mistakes. But in managing human error the choice is between state control and the current system — modelled on other democracies — of redress through the courts and self-regulation through the Press Council and ombudsman.

The Press Council was reconstituted to give it greater independence and the new ombud, Joe Thloloe, is a former radical journalist of unimpeachable integrity. The M&G would support additional measures to strengthen the system, such as the right to fine.

* This editorial first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 14 December.