SELF-REGULATION

“Self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media.”
Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Media practitioners themselves are generally the first to admit they can’t be left to their own devices, to report as they choose without any kind of oversight. If the media repeatedly flout journalism ethics and standards they loose the public’s confidence and threaten their own existence. But who should oversee what the media does? Should it be the government through statutory regulation or the media industry itself through self-regulation? MISA supports self-regulation as the best method of promoting accountability while protecting media freedom.

What is self-regulation?

Under self-regulation the media voluntarily commits itself to uphold a code of ethics that they themselves draft. They establish a complaints mechanism, often called a media council or complaints commission, to which the public can complain about perceived breaches of the code. The independent council adjudicates on complaints and decides upon appropriate remedies. The courts play no role in enforcing the code of practice. Compliance with the code is voluntary and the media does so out of a desire to secure the credibility of their profession and the trust of the public.

Why not statutory regulation?

Statutory regulation, whereby the code of practice is set in law and the media complies under threat of legal sanction, can severely infringe on the right to freedom of expression. Using legislation to enforce professional standards in the media gives governments control over who says what and restricts the free flow of information.

A statute governing the professional standards of the media requires a definition of a ‘journalist’ in law, which means excluding people who do not fit that definition. MISA firmly opposes such a restriction because excluding certain people from practicing journalism violates their right to freedom of expression.

A statute would also require compulsory registration which always comes with the possibility of de-registration of a journalist or an entire publication. This is one of the key reasons governments like statutory regulation and why it is such a threat to media freedom.

MISA believes that statutory regulation has no place in Swaziland. Self-regulation is the best way to minimise interference from the state and thus preserve editorial freedom while ensuring professional standards are maintained.

Self-regulation and the Swazi media

There are currently no self-regulatory bodies in Swaziland. MISA and various media formations have been working with the government on and off for the past decade to set up a self-regulatory mechanism called the Media Complaints Commission (MCC), but it is still not operational — despite the MCC being  ‘launched’ in mid-2011. MISA calles on the members of the MCC, the Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) and the Swaziland Editors’ Forum (SEF) to bring the MCC into life.

There is an urgent need to get the MCC up and running as the threat of statutory regulation still hangs over the industry. The Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology drafted a Media Commission Bill in 2009. There is a concern that this Bill could be passed if the media keeps stalling on implementing the independent  MCC.

(However, the reality of the problem should be noted: a large majority of the print media is state-owned and controlled and the national radio and TV stations are similarly state-owned and controlled. There is one private radio station which focuses on religious and health matters, and one private TV station that kowtows to the ruling elite just as much as the state-broadcasters. There is only one privately-owned newspaper, The Times of Swaziland, and this publication steers clear of questioning or criticising the royal family and the extended ruling elite — where true power and real money lie. Therefore, even if an independent complaints commission comes into being, questions remain over how effective it would be in influencing  the state-owned and controlled media, let alone how effective it would be in ordering apologies, corrections, and other necessary and fair remedies.)

How does self-regulation work?

The Media Complaints Commission (MCC) would receive complaints from the public and find ways of redress that will avoid the courts. If the MCC finds that the media has infringed the code of conduct it has the power to oblige the offending media house to issue an immediate correction and apology. Some media councils have the power to impose fines or even exclude the media house from the council. But self-regulation works best if the main sanction is simply the public shame in having broken the code. The media must publish all the findings of the council.

Does this sort of punishment really encourage responsible journalism? Yes. In short, because the media needs our trust to survive. Media houses, be it press or broadcasting, want and need an audience. The bigger the audience the bigger the advertising revenue. If the MCC routinely finds against a particular media house, exposing their failure to uphold journalism ethics, the media house will see their reputation plummet and their audience shrink. The very existence of the MCC keeps the media on their toes. If journalists and media owners can secure our trust by reporting responsibly and protecting our rights they will also secure their future.

The Swaziland Journalists’ Code of Ethics

This code of ethics, developed by Swazi journalists and editors, outlines the media’s accountability to the public and includes important topics such as reporting the truth, right to reply, hate speech, respect for privacy, confidentiality of sources, and reporting on children and people living with HIV-AIDS. SNAJ code of ethics

Broadcasting Regulation

The regulation of radio and television is best treated separately to press regulation. This is essentially because access to broadcasting is restricted due to the limited spectrum. With so few players allowed, licenses have to be allocated according to a set of rules and more specific regulation of some content is required. For convenience, the independent body tasked with administering the licenses also administers the complaints procedure.

This does not mean that broadcasters do not self-regulate. Primary responsibility for content regulation rests with the stations themselves who apply their own codes of practice. But in the interests of fairness, given so few players and recognising the special reach that broadcasting has, the regulator has to control some aspects of broadcasting content. These aspects commonly include advertising, sponsorships for community broadcasting, election coverage, children’s programming, local content and, where relevant, language diversity.

Complaints about breaches of license conditions should always be directed to the regulator. But complaints about content should be handled first by the relevant broadcaster and only referred to the regulator if no satisfactory resolution is reached. For a full discussion of the role of the broadcasting regulator see Broadcasting.

Useful information:

OSCE, The Media Self-Regulation Guidebook

Hendrik Bussiek, Self-Regulation of the Media in the SADC Region

Article 19, Freedom and Accountability: Safeguarding free expression through media self-regulation

Useful links to other countries media authorities:

Press Complaints Commission (UK)

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa

The Australian Communications and Media Authority

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