Although December 2007 saw a hardened resolution on the tribunal, the Polokwane event also resolved the leadership dispute within the ANC. However, the Press Council’s AGM in August 2008 said it was “deeply concerned at the attacks on media freedom and the judiciary in South Africa”. It noted “with alarm” several new laws which would “severely inhibit media freedom and restrict the public’s right to know”. It added: “The Press Council, whose Press Ombudsman and Press Appeals Panel processes conducted in accordance with democratic principles, fear that its role will be undermined should the attacks on the judiciary weaken that institution.”
Yet, at the same time as the new ANC leadership consolidated its position and began to prepare for national elections in 2009 in which media support or at least neutrality would be important, its position on the tribunal began to soften. It met with Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe – a public figure with impeccable credentials – on August 19, 2008, and in March, 2009, the ANC’s spokesperson Jessie Duarte stated that the ANC had shifted its thinking on the matter and decided that “now is not the time and place for Tribunals”. She advised that the next policy conference would be called on to reconsider the Polokwane resolution, and added that the ANC had engaged with the Press Ombudsman’s office, and reached agreement that the office would be strengthened (Duncan, 2009). At the same time, in the background, draft legislation was being finalised that would deal with issues of privacy of personal information through an Information Protector Regulator. (This was finally tabled in August 2009 as the Protection of Information Bill, with qualified exemption for the media).
In this changing context in 2008, it was not surprising then that the ANC approached the Ombudsman with a complaint over coverage by City Press newspaper through an article headlined “Cracks in Zuma’s NEC”. In a sense it was a test case.
On March 27 2008, the Ombudsman ruled against the newspaper, which the ANC complained had been a fabrication and been presented without indicating that the sources of the story were not necessarily truthful. According to his ruling, the ANC had: