Thus it is that, between the extremes of governmental regulation via the state (which also carries dangers of pre-publication censorship) and a free-for-all, there is a “sweet spot” of self-regulation. This form of regulation exists between the “law” and its agencies, on the one hand, and “guidelines” in the journalism profession on the other. What this system does is to keep at bay the power of the state in regard to free speech and free media, which of course could lead to interference in media content that would violate individual rights to free speech. This accords with the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which in its 2002 Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa, puts the issue well: “Effective self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media.” To this end, as Zlatev (2008) notes, a press council needs to oversee (and amend if necessary) a code of conduct in such a way as to set standards in actual practice.
The argument is therefore made that as a fundamental condition for self-regulation to work, and not to turn into democratically-justifiable control of media content or self-censorship, press freedom has to be respected. It would be putting the cart before the horse to discuss the introduction of self-regulatory bodies when press freedom is not recognised in the constitution, and / or is restricted through law and practice (such as limited access to information, defamation in the penal code or journalists facing jail sentences for what is perceived as "bad " journalism). It is against this backdrop that Zlatev’s primer on self-regulation includes amongst the main duties of a press council being to defend press freedom (2008:46).
The assumption therefore is that self-regulation is a recognition of the relative independence of journalists and the media. According the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa: “Any regulatory body established to hear complaints about media content, including media councils, shall be protected against political, economic or any other undue interference.”
However, self-regulation is not primarily a way to “keep the government off the media’s back”. As this author has written (Berger, 2009): “If it functions effectively, a press