South African Media Freedom Day 2014: What are we asking for?
- Julie Reid
- 12 Oct 2014 10:06 (South Africa)
As is all too historically common, the cyclical nature of the revolving centres of power means that South Africa’s freedom of expression rights are again, despite an environment of (supposed) democracy, facing serious threats especially with regard to oppositional voices of dissent. The various current threats to press freedom and freedom of expression in South Africa were discussed earlier this year on this website, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (3 May).
The Right2Know Campaign has come to this party, and announced that it will commemorate Black Wednesday this year with a National Day of Action, organising various events and protests across the country on 18 October. But why is it important to take note of what the Right2Know Campaign is asking for?
Threats to freedom of expression and the limitation of dissident voices, both with regard to the press, the public service broadcaster and the community media, as well as the rights of protestors and whistleblowers, are so evident now that they almost do not need to be spelled out. (I did so briefly at the recent South African Communications Association Conference). These threats are real, obvious and dangerous. They are bad for democracy and for society. They are also exacerbated by the colossal communications divide that directly mirrors the economic inequality of our country, the excessive profiteering of private media and telecommunications companies, and the monopolistic strangle-hold that too few media companies have on our communications spaces. These are the spaces in which we are meant to talk to each other, hear about each other, and hear about ourselves. But too often this sphere is populated only by the voices and interests of the sector of society which holds economic power, excluding content relevant to the majority. This also, is bad for democracy.
Understanding the intrinsic relationship between freedom of expression (for the media and for citizens in general), a media that serves the public interest rather than market imperatives, and the way in which all of this is healthy for a democracy is vital. But there are a lot of things going wrong for the South African media. There are also a lot of things wrong with the South African media.
Taking all of this into account, it is worth taking a serious look at what the Right2Know Campaign is asking for. Adopting a ‘ground-up’ approach, informed largely by grass-roots community based organisations, the Right2Know Campaign has taken on a broad spectrum of work with regard to media and communications rights. On 22 September it published a wide-ranging summary of the related issues which it currently engages. The list is impressive. I say this because a quick look at similar campaign efforts, or related NGO/civil society groups around the globe reveal that most such groups concerned with communications rights will usually emphasise only one or two issues, and then make these campaigning or lobbying thrusts relevant to only a very particular sector or people. So for example, a number of ongoing campaigns around the world concerned with communications rights focus solely on the freedom and safety of journalists, focusing then exclusively on the rights of journalists only.
While that is not bad, it can result in media-campaigning silos, where issues like the freedom of the press is seen as separate to the freedom of expression rights of protestors, or where the important links between matters surrounding freedom of expression online is not connected to the digital divide and the high costs of data. Also, what many of these international efforts often miss, is that campaigning for a free press is one thing, but without the necessary attention to media concentration, these efforts may bear little fruit. Monopolistic media markets often result in problems of access and accessibility to the majority, especially in global south countries. We shouldn’t consider a ‘free media’ only as one that does not suffer censorship, but also as one that is freely accessible to everyone. What is the use of a free press anyway, if only a select few people can read it, respond to it, or speak to it and through it?
At first glance, then, it may seem that the Right2Know Campaign is asking for too much. But that may be because of our own historically-informed audience expectation: we expect human rights-related campaigns to simply get to the point and issue us with sexy one-liners, and catchy punch-lines that sum up the issue(s) in only half a sentence. This looks good on a placard, held by a protestor at a march, and it translates nicely to an easily digestible sound-bite for a news insert, or a front-page picture. But we do our world’s activists a disservice when adhering to this unspoken expectation, which they in-turn often adhere to themselves, because what we are effectively asking them to do is less than they could, and what we are doing is paying attention to less than we could.
Refreshingly, and to its credit, the Right2Know Campaign seems to have side-stepped this entrenched expectation, which means that it has freed itself to make the interrelated connections between the numerous aspects of the media and communications landscape, both politically and market driven, which negatively impact the communications rights of people, whether they be journalists, protestors, whistleblowers, community organisations or anyone else. As a result, the Right2Know Campaign’s message for 18 October is not simple, but unashamedly heavy in content, and that in itself is important.
Putting it into simple ‘sound-bite’ fashion, the Right2Know Campaign is asking for greater communications rights for all. Their recently published document starts, “We are fighting for our right to communicate, to meet our need for information and the freedom to express ourselves. We need to communicate in order to organise, to participate in shaping the economy, to get jobs. To make our democracy work, we need to communicate with government, to tell them what we need and to make sure they deliver on their promises. Communication is the foundation of our collective humanity, sharing ideas with a lover, a child, a parent or a friend.”
The publication goes on to list the campaign’s various sites of concern. Predictably but also importantly, the SABC features strongly. Because of the challenges of access and accessibility to the mainstream and private media for many, the SABC, as the public service broadcaster, still boasts the largest audience (television and radio) of any single media outlet in the country. This means that the SABC is in the privileged position to have the greatest positive impact in the country with regard to the dissemination of relevant local content, information, and news or current affairs. Sadly, the political independence of the broadcaster is at best questionable, corruption and maladministration by its managers go unpunished despite damning investigations by the Public Protector, and its financial doldrums persist due to it being underfunded and overly dependent on advertising, meaning that it cannot meet its mandate of the provision of quality locally produced content.
When talking about threats to freedom of expression in South Africa at the current time, the site at which these freedoms are in most danger is on our streets during protests. To protest is not only a constitutionally protected right, it is an act of free expression in and of itself. Despite the manner in which the mainstream media continually negatively stereotypes protestors as unreasonable, violent, uneducated, uncivilised and barbaric, it is not an act of deviance or barbarism to protest. For many communities, protests come as a final straw, only once all other channels of bureaucratic procedures with local municipalities or authorities have been met with non-responses and inefficiency. For poor communities, with no or limited access to other modes of expression, to protest is often the only form of expression available.
An extensive research project released earlier this year and performed by AmaBhungane and Prof Jane Duncan from the University of Johannesburg, reveals how the rights of protestors are continually infringed or ignored, the violence of police toward protestors is on the rise, as are the killings of protestors by the police. Where Marikana should have been the wake-up call to convince us as a country to stop this madness, in practice the opposite is happening. Speaking one’s mind by voicing dissent is not a crime. And even if it were, in a country that has long abandoned the death sentence, receiving this punishment without trial, with a trigger-happy police officer as your judge, seems an inappropriate sentence in a democracy.
In South Africa, the use and misuse of legislation (some of it Apartheid-era law) is systematically employed to clamp down on spaces for free expression and prevent access to information. Recently, the Right2Know Campaign released its now-annual Secret State of the Nation Report, which provides a summary of the various state run mechanisms which are either used or misused to close down the opportunity for the media, civil society or ordinary citizens to access government information. For example, South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), as the country’s freedom-of-information law, is a tool which allows anyone to request information from a public body. But the bitter irony here is that this law, which is supposed to make information freely available, is often implemented to do the opposite. R2K report reveals that between 2012 and 2013, in a survey of 250 PAIA applications, only 16% of such applications were met with the disclosure of information from a state body. The Right2Know Campaign report also details how the Apartheid-era piece of legislation, the National Keypoints Act, is being widely abused by the state for the unlawful prohibition of protests and to justify non-disclosure of information about various state sites or bodies. And this is before the Protection of State Information Bill, the Secrecy Bill, has become law. This heinous piece of legislative twaddle still supposedly occupies a spot on the President’s desk, awaiting nothing but his signature.
The South African community media is struggling. We have over 200 community radio stations, five community television stations and hundreds of community newspapers, most of which are woefully underfunded. For those outside of the urban centres, or economically unable to access mainstream and private media, the community media offers the only alternative to the political-propaganda infused SABC. It is also often the only media paying attention to local news which affects a particular community. But underfunded, struggling to survive and reliant on advertising, and where government is the largest advertiser, these outlets are understandably reluctant to ‘bite the hand that feeds’ meaning that their independence suffers and their democratising potential decreases.
More than eight in ten people in South Africa own a cellular phone, and with the take-up of smart-phones internet penetration is on the rise, rapidly increasing the communications possibilities of persons who previously had no access to the internet. Well, that sounds great, except for one thing: the cost of data. If you’ve ever tried to watch a Youtube video, or even read a news article on for example, this website, using pre-paid data on your cellphone, you’ll know that this is too expensive to make it an affordable day-to-day option. Most poor people use pre-paid packages, but when downloading even small amounts of data via their cellphones, their pre-paid data can be chewed up within a few minutes. This makes accessing serious amounts of news or media via a cellphone unfeasible to most. South Africans pay amongst the highest costs globally for airtime and data, which is crazy for the country that is supposedly the most economically unequal in the world. The government, through Icasa, ought to rectify this by regulating the doings of profit-driven telecommunications companies, but they don’t, leaving consumers at the mercy of MTN, Cell C, Vodacom and Telkom.
Almost two years ago I wrote about the various challenges and dangers facing the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) project in South Africa. Disappointingly, two years on, little has changed. This is tipped to be one of the largest and most expensive national projects that the country has ever taken on, and if administered correctly, could be a great leap forward in democratising our media space bringing more media, more choice of media, and more information to more people than ever before.
But very few people at grassroots level (who stand to either lose or gain the most from DTT) know anything about it. That’s because the Department of Communications has been completely crap at telling people about it. Nor has government conducted any sort of proper public engagement process on the matter, as they should have. Government discussions on DTT have involved only policy-makers and industry stakeholders, so although billions of Rands of public funds are being spent on the project the government has precisely no idea how the citizenry feels about the matter or what they would like to get out of it. Nice. That said, the Department of Communications has yet to release detailed information with regard to how much in public funding has been spent on the project to date, especially with regard to the expensive infrastructure involved, or projected future costs. We have no idea what this is costing the country, but the figure is undoubtedly huge. And of course, there are whisperings and rumours of government maladministration and corruption with regard to the DTT communications/advertising campaign expenditure as well as the tender process for the manufacture of the set-top box.
That is scary also because the DTT project is currently in danger of failure. We could be spending all this money with little benefit. Does this ring an Arms Deal bell? The problem is that private satellite broadcasters like DSTV have been readying themselves for digital migration. They have already signed up nearly 50% of television households, largely due to how in recent years they have introduced a number of lower-cost subscription packages, which during dual illumination and post digital migration are likely to offer more substantial content offerings than free-to-air DTT. By the time we do eventually switch off the analogue signals and migrate to digital, the only people who will take-up the free-to-air DTT set-top box will be the very poor, resulting in a ‘poor-person’s television’, or what some have called a broadcasting Apartheid. The numbers of users who climb onto the DTT bandwagon will be severely reduced, threatening the overall success of a project that has cost the country billions.
Considering this context, we must also question the ethics of asking people, the majority of whom are likely to be the most poor, to purchase a set-top box, pay for the installation of a new aerial and a television licence, all in one shot, just so that they can access something that should be free of charge (ie. free-to-air television). Government has claimed that it has plans to subsidise the set-top box somewhat for poor households, but has been vague on the issue. It should not be vague. This is information that people, and especially poor people, need. USAASA has claimed that it will administer the set-top box subsidy scheme, but will require applicants to undergo a means test in order to qualify for the subsidised box. We still don’t know how much of the set-top box will be subsidised, what the eventual cost to the user will be, but it is still damned insulting to ask someone to prove that they are poor. No one is questioning how this is an affront on a human being’s dignity. We should also be asking why it is that under-spent public funds in some arenas and/or maladministered funds could not be better spent on subsidising 100% of the DTT set-top box. For example, the R756 million that the DoC allocated to the unknown and suspiciously appointed communications company Media Corner, to run its DTT advertising campaign, but which delivered - wait for it - nothing, could have potentially bought quite a few set-top boxes. I am betting also that if the government did issue a detailed breakdown of costs of the entire DTT project, we could find a few places to cut fruitless expenditure and shore up enough money to buy boxes for everyone who needs one.
This week, ahead of the National Day of Action on 18 October, the Right2Know Campaign, together with the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, will release another document, this time on digital terrestrial television. The document contains a list of demands for the roll-out of DTT in South Africa, as well as why the Right2Know Campaign and the SOS Coalition believe that these demands are not unreasonable, but with the right political will and with a vision for enhancing the communications rights in the country, can be easily met. Foremost among these demands is that the free-to-air DTT set-top box should be distributed to anyone in South Africa who wants one, free of charge. Because that would be the right thing to do. DM
*Disclosure: Dr Julie Reid is a national working group member of the Right2Know Campaign, and a member of the campaign’s media freedom and diversity subcommittee. Parts of this column are an edited version of a conference paper presentation delivered by Reid at the 40th anniversary conference of the South African Communication Association (SACOMM), on 1 October 2014, at North-West University, Potchefstroom.