05/07/2017 14:28 BST | Updated 06/07/2017 15:45 BST

Media Self-Regulation Must Be Challenged In Parliament -- ANC Commission

"You can effect regime change, you can make governments and institutions fall because of the power that you hold," Jackson Mthembu has said of the media.

Ferial Haffajee

Media regulation in South Africa again hangs in the balance as the African National Congress calls for an immediate inquiry into appropriate mechanisms of accountability of the press.

ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu, providing feedback on the ANC's commission on communications and the battle of ideas alongside Deputy Telecommunications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, told journalists that Parliament should look into the best method of regulation of media to ensure accountability of journalists across the board.

Print media still plays an important role even in the age of convergence, which means the question of how media is held accountable remains paramount.

"How do we hold you accountable?" he asked. "You can effect regime change, you can make governments and institutions fall because of the power that you hold... How do we ensure you react responsibly, that you don't abuse the power you hold in your hands as print media?" he said.

Mthembu said it is Parliament that must "take forward this discourse" of whether to promote independent, self-regulation or "co-regulation" of the media. He said if Parliament can appoint the South African Human Rights Commission, Independent Electoral Commission and other statutory bodies and chapter nine institutions to oversee such inquiries, is it "averse for us [the ANC] to think of a body that looks at the accountability of media that is appointed in this manner?".

"Will it be too much against media freedoms if we were to think along these lines?" he said.

Mthembu said the party is not saying it knows "what the modalities of how to regulate the media are or how it should be done" but that it is an issue that demands urgent attention in Parliament.

'ANC fought for media freedom and will be the last to take it away'

On behalf of the party, Mthembu said the ANC remains committed to media freedom even if the party takes objection to some reporting. "We don't always agree with you, but we'll defend your right to write it," he said.

ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa, wearing a black band in symbolic support of press freedom during the session, reiterated the importance of media freedom and the right of journalists to work without being intimidated or harassed.

Black First Land First (BLF), the political organisation under fire for encouraging targeting of "white, racist" journalists, including Tiso Blackstar editor-at-large Peter Bruce at his home, again came under fire from Kodwa and Mthembu. Kodwa said those implicated in intimidation of journalists must be arrested immediately.

Mthembu later in the address said the ANC will not agree with going to a person's house to threaten them, particularly if they are journalists. "You are communicating to them that journalists must only write stories you agree with," he said.

If people have grievances with content in the press, Mthembu added, they must be directed to existing regulatory mechanisms, including the Press Ombud and Press Council. "There is something called a right to reply. If you think you've been done in by a journalist... use the avenues available to you, but there is nothing saying you must go to a journalist's house and do these silly things you're doing," he said. "We condemn them in the extreme and where we stand it is criminal; they must be arrested immediately."

"The ANC will be the last organisation to say there must be no media freedom," Mthembu said. "That's why the BLFs of this world don't belong to the ANC's table and never will. You cannot be threatening journalists," he said.

'We need the best brains in the SABC'

The commission discussed the embattled public broadcaster, expressing concern at its leadership. In response to a question on whether those responsible for the crisis the SABC faces should face criminal charges, Ndabeni-Abrahams said everybody involved - CEOs, CFOs and more - must have action taken against them if found to have engaged in criminality.

In an apparent swipe at former chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Mthembu said the "best way of avoiding what we've been through is [for people in charge] to have the best grades". The commission emphasised that in any of our state-owned enterprises, including the SABC, only the "best brains should be at the helm," he said.

Those who are in charge of "whatever area of digital migration" will be dealt with if the shift hasn't taken place by 2018, Radebe said in an apparent jibe at Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, under fire for the slow pace of migration.

"As the ANC, we're saying you cannot wait until 2018 to migrate [from analogue to digital]," he said. "We were meant to have this in 2015... and we're losing the benefits of not being in a digital environment."

Other issues voiced by the commission include the need to deconcentrate media ownership, transforming the ICT sector and lowering data costs for citizens' communication, and fast-tracking the licensing of Postbank so it is capable of delivering social grants in the near future.

Emphasising the importance of political communications training, Ndabeni-Abrahams said the ANC needs to have "one message amid many voices" to ensure it retains a hegemonic position in society. All leaders and deployees must undergo political communication training to ensure the credibility of both the message and messenger, she said.

It was recommended in discussions that the Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS) be located within the presidency to centralise government communications. This is needed to ensure there are "political champions" who can carry the ANC's messages without contradiction.

The ANC's fifth national policy conference concludes today.