The office of the SA Press Ombudsman is to
be turned into a Press Council with a brief to tackle wider issues affecting the print media, writes Bate Felix.

In a recent meeting of the Founding Bodies
Committee, it was resolved that restructuring be fast-tracked to enable the
office to tackle recent print media issues like the intended reform of the
press code and concerns arising from proposed changes to the film and
publications act. This will be in addition to its traditional function of dealing
with complaints.

The changes are to take place before outgoing
ombudsman Ed Linington retires at the end of July.

The chairperson of the committee, Raymond
Louw, said that the Founding Bodies Committee will be dissolved and turned into
the Press Council of South Africa.

He said the new body will play a crucial
support role for the ombudsman’s office. 

The duties of the Press Council, especially
its chairperson, will include “being the face of the ombud’s office, publicity,
addressing concerns about media freedom and ethics, liaison with the government
on such issues and legislation; regular revision of the press code and rules of
procedure, making appointments, organising contact with press councils abroad,
holding and attending conferences and other activities to keep the organisation
as a whole in the public eye”.

The new body will not only represent the
media, but also the public. The council will consist of 11 members, five from
the public and six from the press.

Advertisements for the vacancies on the
council, as well as the position of ombudsman becoming available with Linington’s
retirement, recently appeared.

Louw has approached the Chief Justice to
nominate a member of the Constitutional
Court as chair of the appointment panel. The end
of April was set as the target date for getting the appointment panel set up.

The panel will appoint the new press
ombudsman in consultation with the Founding Bodies Committee, and also appoint the
chairperson of the council and the public members of the appeal panel.

The new arrangements will also see more
regular use of assessors, drawn from the public members of the council.
 The public members will
be selected from different parts of the country to make it easier to draft them
into appeal hearings.

reasons for this is to give the ombudsman a wide sounding board for him to make
his rulings, and also to make the role of the pannellists more meaningful,”
said Louw.

It will
fall to the chairperson to be more proactive,  and to take on a higher public role in
commenting on media issues, he added.