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Press Councils and the Regulation of the Print Media in Southern Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa & the World

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

What have bank bailouts and economic stimulus funds got in common with the erosion of the force and authority of press councils in different countries? Adrian Hadland puts a simple co-relational suggestion: states are getting big. This isn’t a pro-minimalist state argument by a libertarian, but a statement of observable fact. Dr. Hadland, an academic and former journalist, had served on the Press Ombudsman Appeal Panel of South Africa and perhaps unsurprisingly, his presentation reflected very strong views about the effect of the increasing power of the state on press councils in most parts of the world.He started with the well known proposition that there is an interlock between the quality of democracy and the relationship between state and the media in any given country. He then explained the different normative media theories, and attempted to locate the place of the importance of self-regulation within those theories. The "social responsibility theory of the press" which is largely associated with liberal theory, for example, gives a premium to self-regulation as a way of ensuring responsibility of the media. The theory looks at the media as an institution with a prominent role of public stewardship, and thus, a non-private franchise. Self-regulation is an insurance both against media irresponsibility in the discharge of its significant functions and interference by the government in those functions.
This theory isn't without its critics. Dr. Hadland mentioned the concerns raised by the school of developmental journalism which advocates that journalism and the media ought to play a decisive role in development which is a central social objective. One important logical corollary of this view is the toleration of interference in the media activity of the locus of development - the state. He also explained the all-too familiar theory of the media as a site of subjective intake where partial filtration and synthesis is made. The formulation can be put in this normative statement: if the media is subjective, complicit and partial, it can't legitimately make a claim for self-regulation.
The theoretical frameworks led to a discussion of the global topography of self-regulatory bodies. Dr. Hadland stated that there were 80 varieties of self regulation. Among these varieties, press councils are the most prominent. 2004 data show that there are 35 countries with press councils. But they aren't homogeneous in structural configuration, constitutive members, rules of adjudication and enforcement, and moral, political and legal authority.  He argued that each of them have distinct records of success in enforcing media responsibility. Their success depends on the "degree ethical guidelines balance protection of the press against various government and individual interests", "consistency and force with which ethical standards are applied", "degree of compliance" and their "participatory and representative nature".
Despite his insistence that he was not pessimistic about the present and future of many press councils in Sub-Saharan Africa, his presentation depicted a gloomy picture. All five press councils in Southern Africa – South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania – are under different degrees of pressure due to hostile governments, lack of resources and poor journalistic skills.
The discussion which followed the presentation focused on press councils and the cultural specificity of the practice of journalism, trust (or lack of it) in the media in Africa and its nexus with the state/media relationship, the theoretical and practical challenges of self-regulation and country specific considerations of success and failure of press councils.