Interestingly, the constitution of the new Press Council of South Africa (PESA) prioritises as its first aim and objective, the promotion and preservation of constitutional freedom of expression and of the press. Only second, is the promotion of ethical journalism. However, the fifth aim and objective is to promote public awareness and understanding of the self-regulatory system, signalling attention in theory, at least to playing a more visible role.
The role of the PCSA as currently structured is akin to a “legislature” in the sense of adopting (and amending) the Code of Conduct, and oversight role of the governance of the whole system. The ombudsman in this framework works as a “judge” – although only after he has exhausted his efforts to mediate a settlement without disputes having to come to adjudication. In his rulings, he is usually assisted by two members of the Appeals panel. The PCSA is made up of six representatives nominated by press organisations, and six public representatives. The latter are chosen (after public advertisements for the posts) by an Appointments Panel that has three PCSA members on it. The PCSA requests the Chief Justice of South Africa to appoint a judge to chair the Appointments Panel. The same panel also appoints the Ombudsman, the Appeals Panel (with a different set of six members of the press and six members of the public), and the chairperson of the Appeals Panel. No press representative employed by a given publication under contention may be involved in adjudication of cases. For a flavour of the work of the PCSA, one may cite chairperson Raymond Louw who in 2008 said: “In the 12 months, we have had more than 121 complaints and the complainants ranged from ordinary readers of publications to Cabinet Ministers and political parties. We are satisfied that the system is working well.” (Press Council statement, August 15, 2008). However, in South African political conditions around the Press Council, what is perhaps more relevant than “working well” or the numbers of complaints is the extent to which the complaints indicate legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the ruling party.
4. The ANC critique