Ombudsmen a Global Growth Industry

By Casey Bukro

The Washington Post’s decision early this year to dump its ombudsman got a lot of attention, but a global growth in the ranks of ombudsmen as a step toward development has gone largely unnoticed.

“This growth reflects a belief in young or fragile democracies that strong media play a critical role in development,” reports “themediaonline,” most notably in Latin America.

“Themediaonline” report was based on “Giving the Public a Say: How News Ombudsmen Ensure Accountability, Build Trust and Add Value to Media Organizations” It was published by fesmedia Africa, a media project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Namibia, Africa. FES is a nongovernment, nonprofit foundation that promotes democratization and good governance.

An Argentine academic said the work of ombudsmen “demands our attention.”

In Africa, according to the report, ombudsmen organizations play an important role in fending off government interference. Instead of working for news media, ombudsmen in other parts of the world might operate as voluntary associations.

Africa has become a hotbed of ombudsman activity.

Complaints to a press ombudsman in the Johannesburg area jumped 224 percent since 2009, according to a report at the South Africa Editors’ Forum at Umhlanga, Africa.

Johan Retief, deputy press ombudsman of Print Media South Africa, said his organization received 151 complaints from aggrieved newspaper readers and newsmakers in 2009, and the tally is expected to reach 490 in 2013. PMSA is described as a nonprofit voluntary association with a membership of 700 newspapers and magazines in four languages.

Greater numbers of complaints to the ombudsman organization have been laid to growing public awareness of the organization’s public advocate role and its effectiveness in dealing with complaints about inaccurate or unfair newspaper reporting, according to IOLnews.

The newspaper industry’s previous system of self-regulation came under attack as “toothless,” and the governing African National Congress threatened to create a statutory tribunal to hear complaints. That was avoided by a stronger stance by the ombudsmen.

For example, Press Ombudsman Retief ordered the Daily Sun newspaper to publish a front page apology for front page color photos of the bodies of people killed in mob attacks.

Complainants said the pictures were insensitive, dehumanizing, inconsiderate, caused discomfort to society and lacked compassion, according to a report in the Mail & Guardian.

The photos published in October and November also raised concerns that they exposed society, including children, to extreme violence and desensitized people to violent crimes.

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