The people appointed to rule on media complaints on St Helena will be free of government influence, the island’s chief magistrate has insisted.
John MacRitchie has pointed out that their independence is protected in the new Media Standards Ordinance, which came into effect on 9 October 2012.
He also told St Helena Online that the law required Governor Mark Capes to be guided by independent legal advice before appointing media standards commissioners.
So far Jenny Corker and Steve Biggs have been appointed to the commission.
Mr MacRitchie – the island’s chief magistrate, and president of the commission – said it would initially follow codes of practice used in England. It may adopt its own standards in time, possibly taking a lead from the current Leveson Inquiry into media standards in the UK.
“If the findings of the Leveson Inquiry assists the commission in that exercise in due course, then fair and good,” said Mr MacRitchie.
Hearings will take place in private and the media cannot reveal the identity of complainants. Mr MacRitchie said it would be “illogical” to hear grievances in public hearings when they may involve defamatory or unfair material.
“My only concern is to ensure that any complaints made are inquired into in a just manner, and that decisions are taken independently and without partiality in accordance with the law.”
He said the commission’s job was “to protect the vulnerable, protect the public from defamatory, discriminatory, offensive or harmful material, ensure accuracy and impartiality in the delivery of factual material, prevent misleading, harmful or offensive advertising, exploitation of any unwitting member of the public and protect public safety, public health, public order and public morality.”
Mr MacRitchie would not be drawn on whether there were current concerns about media standards on St Helena.
Neither the UK code or the Media Standards Ordinance bans the press from being partisan – meaning it is allowed to take sides, but it “must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.”
The new regulations say people with complaints must put them to the publisher first. Only if the complaint is unresolved after two weeks should it taken to the commission.
Complaints must be made to the publisher within 28 days. Part or all of a complaint can be dismissed by Mr MacRitchie before it is put before the commission
As president of the commission, he also has the right to impound documents relating to complaints. He can also allow complaints to be made anonymously.
Witnesses can be required to give evidence on oath, as though in court.
The commission can decide to investigate a publication or broadcast even when no complaint has been made.