The ruling ANC insisted on Tuesday it did not want to curtail press freedom with a proposed Media Appeals Tribunal, but warned that print media did not seem committed to transformation.
"It's us who can gloat and say the freedom you enjoy, is as a result of what we fought for, led by the ANC... We are not about to reverse our legacy in that area," African National Congress national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu told editors and journalists in Johannesburg.
But the media should not deny the ANC the right to "put a view to the public".
"Does that not amount to messing up with our freedom of expression as the ANC?" asked Mthembu.
"There's a lot of dishonesty... you can't enter an argument by saying stop an argument."
'Defenders of your space'
He was briefing the media about the ANC's discussion document to set up a Media Appeals Tribunal for the print media, saying the current self-regulatory system of the Press Ombudsman did not allow for punitive measures against newspapers.
"You are defenders of your space," Mthembu said to critical questions from members of the media.
He said the tribunal would be set up to "assist" editors and that the ANC valued media freedom.
"Which part [of the proposal] is unconstitutional? Which part wants to cap media freedom? None of our commas, none of our sentences, none of our wording has that... it would not be allowed in South Africa. We are the people who fought for the freedom you enjoy today... some of us died for it. We have put our view before you, and that is our right," he added.
'Regrettable degree of transformation'
Mthembu said the discussion document did not only revolve around the proposed tribunal, but also looked at media ownership.
"Print media does not have, nor is in a process of developing a transformational charter, despite the regrettable degree of transformation."
He said Media24 had a 15 percent historically disadvantaged individual (HDI) ownership and Avusa 25.5 percent.
"Caxton and Independent Newspapers has no HDI participation," said Mthembu.
The ANC proposed the Competition Commission "investigate the anti-competitive dynamics in the print media value chain, that is paper, printing, publishing, distribution and advertising".
'It will assist our editors'
He tried to explain why the ANC believed a Media Appeals Tribunal was necessary to regulate the media, saying it would be very similar to how broadcast media was regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa).
"We believe, indeed, it [the tribunal] will assist our editors in their jobs."
Mthembu said members of the public who were victims of defamation in the media did not have any legal recourse if they chose to complain through the Press Ombudsman — and often people could not afford to take their cases to the courts.
Mthembu asked the media to come forward with alternative suggestions on how to give the Press Ombudsman more teeth.
SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) media freedom expert Raymond Louw last week warned of a "horrifying list of repressive acts against the media by the government".
Louw was speaking at a discussion by editors on how to deal with the perceived onslaught against media freedom, which included the proposed tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill, which was likely to make it difficult for journalists to get access to state information.
While the editors were meeting, a Sunday Times journalist, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, who published a story critical of national police chief Bheki Cele, was arrested on charges of fraud, sparking outrage from editors.
Mthembu said the discussion around the Media Appeals Tribunal had nothing to do with Wa Afrika's arrest, nor did it have anything to do with the proposed Protection of Information Bill, which had been widely criticised by media freedom groups.
"There is no relationship between what happened to Mzilikazi and our discussion document," said Mthembu.
"It [the discussion document] was in the public space long before anybody was arrested," he added.
An independent statutory body
The ANC wants an independent statutory body accountable to Parliament to deal with complaints against newspapers, instead of only using the Press Ombudsman who currently deals with complaints. This would be discussed at the ANC's national general council meeting in Durban in September.
The ANC Youth League has also come out in support of the Media Appeals Tribunal, saying it needed an adjudicator over "wrong reporting by all media".
Two weeks ago, the ANC released a discussion document entitled "Media transformation, ownership and diversity", as a follow-up to a resolution taken at the ANC's Polokwane conference in December 2007, that a proposal to set up a tribunal for print media be investigated.
Editors fight back
Editors of major newspapers launched a campaign at the weekend to fight what they call attempts to curtail freedom of expression and the free flow of information.
In a declaration, 37 print editors said they were "deeply concerned" about proposed new legislation and a media tribunal.
"We vigorously oppose the restrictive clauses in the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal," the so-called Auckland Park declaration reads.
But the media does seem to have some friends in the ANC. Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils told Talk Radio 702 at the weekend the Protection of Information Bill needed to be opposed.
Congress of SA Trade Unions secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi has also criticised the bill.
"We are with the editors on this," he said in a report in Beeld newspaper on Tuesday.
However, Vavi would not be drawn on commenting on the Media Appeals Tribunal.