Opinionista Faith Muthambi 15 May 2016

The media may be free, but lack of transformation constrains this freedom

On 3 May 2016 the world celebrated Press Freedom Day, an occasion that shines the spotlight on the remarkable work of many local journalists to strengthen and build societies, while also deepening our democracy. This day also serves to confirm that freedom of the press and freedom of the expression are fundamental human rights that must be upheld and protected at all times.

While we celebrate the achievements of the media, this is also an occasion to take stock of the transformation that has occurred in this industry, to ensure that the ownership of these influential media assets reflects our diversity.

We should also use this opportunity to strengthen calls and efforts of ensuring that the editorial boards and leadership structures are not out of sync with efforts of transforming our country. The transformation of ownership and control of media has an important cascading effect – a greater number of ordinary people being able to access the media and let their voices be heard on key matters that affect their lives.

The dismally slow pace of transformation of the media should be a concern for all of us; government, civil society, business and indeed media owners themselves. As we know, an untransformed media is unable to comprehensively demonstrate the plurality of voices in our societies – diversity in content in sorely lacking and we are seeing a dangerous rise in content homogeneity.

When we look at the race and gender composition of media, the results are stark and there for all of us to see.

In 2011 during parliamentary hearings into print media transformation it emerged that the average black ownership of the press was 14%, while female representation at board level was only 4.44%. Print owners defended this at the hearings, stating that the number of black editors of newspapers had grown from 7% in 1994 to 65%. Sadly, ownership is still very much concentrated among a few companies. Not much has changed since then; ownership and content still lack diversity.

The transformation of print media remains our apex priority as government. As such, as government we are doing what we can to empower community media to ensure that at least this arm of media can take up a meaningful role in shaping and building this country. This, however, cannot be the solution. It is only one part of the sum.

There is an urgent need to look at the entire value chain in the print media space, from the print media ownership to printing press, audit bureau of circulation, and distribution. This will give a holistic view of the media. These various elements may look unrelated but in fact they play a mutually re-enforcing role to maintain the status quo

In the second quarter of this financial year as the Department of Communication, we intend to host a colloquium on print media transformation to solicit input from the public and stakeholders.

It is worrying that community and small commercial print media continue to face unfair competition from monopolies who either buy out successful community publications, or contribute to their demise through unfair competition.

Yes, the freedom of the press and the right of access to information are enshrined in our Constitution, and as government we have no wish to see a deviation from this position, but we cannot proudly declare the media to be free when ownership and control still rests in the hands of a tiny few individuals. DM

Muthambi is Minister of Communications.

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