The Press Council of SA has expressed concern at plans to set up a "Pan-African Media Observatory" linked to the AU. In a submission on the initiative, the council says it should be based on existing documents that affirm media freedom, and expresses concern at the emphasis on the media's "responsibilities", a term often used by authoritarian regimes in their attempts to control the media.

Submission by the Press Council of South Africa and the South African Press Ombudsman to the consultations on a Pan African Media Observatory.

Please condone our late submission and consider it with the rest of the submissions.

Most of the intentions behind the proposal for an Observatory are noble but there are some elements in it that raise red flags. Our intention in this submission is to point out the pitfalls.

We believe that The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa has to be the foundation of any proposal on an Observatory. African states and media have already committed themselves to the Declaration and the Observatory’s role should be on ways to promote compliance. The omission of any reference to this important foundation stone is glaring.

Before we can even think of “drafting a Charter laying down the rights
and responsibilities of the media”, to quote the proposal, we need to look again carefully at the Declaration.

Incidentally, our experience is that politicians us the phrase “the responsibilities of the media” as code for controlling and manipulating them: they are not thinking of the ethical codes that journalists have in mind. The proposal has to ensure a common acceptance of the codes referred to in the Declaration (see the Complaints section in it) as the measures to ensure quality, professionalism and high ethical principles, without reverting to the use of the loaded “responsibilities”.

Another concern is with the role of the Observatory “addressing claims and applications for remedy with the objective of settling disputes first and foremost through mediation”. This has to be worked through to ensure that existing self-regulatory mechanisms, such us ours, are not undermined. We, for example, have close to 700 newspapers and magazines in the country voluntarily subscribing to the code.

The Declaration states:

      “A public complaints system for print or broadcasting should be available in accordance with the following principles:
      complaints shall be determined in accordance with established rules and codes of conduct agreed between all stakeholders; and
      the complaints system shall be widely accessible.
2.      Any regulatory body established to hear complaints about media content, including media councils, shall be protected against political, economic or any other undue interference. Its powers shall be administrative in nature and it shall not seek to usurp the role of the courts.
3.      Effective self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media.”

We can foresee a situation where the South African Press Ombudsman rules in terms of our Code and Complaints Procedures and then one of the parties stalls on implementing the decision by taking it to the Observatory for “mediation”. That would be untenable.

A much more credible role for the Observatory would be to promote self-regulatory systems and disseminating information about their status on the continent.

 As stated earlier, there are areas where we do support the role of a proposed Observatory, e.g.:
•  the development, implementation and updating of a pan-African portal for all media, which could be used to draw up a state of play on what exists to date while constituting a local and international showcase shared by all the media in Africa;

•  as a consultative and advisory body for individuals, the media and governments developing new regulatory proposals; 

•  publication of a regular newsletter and intelligent and optimal use of the African media portal;

•  publication and official delivery of an annual report on the media to
the Chairman of the African Union Commission;

•  award of an annual prize for the best African report (press/radio/TV/online) – of course with the proviso that we don’t duplicate what already exists;

•  encouragement of multilingual twinning initiatives involving different media and different geographical areas, building on the most
experiences and achievements.

More detailed work still needs to be done, but we believe that these broad brushstrokes will give an indication of our position.

* This submission was made in July 2009.