The real information revolution
19 October 2017 16:46 (South Africa)
Opinionista Lumko Mtimde

Media Freedom: SA needs a free, accountable, transformed and diverse media

  • Lumko Mtimde
    Lumko-Mtimde.jpg
    Lumko Mtimde

    Lumko Mtimde is an ICT, media and broadcasting policy and regulatory expert and former CEO of Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA

The 5th Parliament needs to conduct a follow-up probe on media transformation and diversity, leading to new policy interventions and legislative amendments that must ensure a media reflective of our country.

On the 12th August 2015, Steve Mohale, Citizen Newspaper Editor, wrote: “The media has long played the role of unelected opposition to government in South Africa, taking its constitutional duty of being a watchdog to levels beyond what the Fourth Estate is meant. One hears numerous justifications from editors and journalists for why they give the DA a soft ride and focus all their efforts on discrediting the ANC, but if that’s what we’re about, then we should admit upfront that we’re DA newsletters. Then people would know.”

Every year, the 3rd of May is a date when we all celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. The worldwide commemoration of this day is led by Unesco, by identifying the global thematic and organising the main event in different parts of the world every year.

This international day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 following a recommendation adopted at the 26th Session of Unesco’s General Conference in 1991. This response followed a call by African journalists, who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.

The 19th October marks Press Freedom Day, commemorating what is commonly referred to as the Black Wednesday following the events on and before 19 October 1977. What the brutal apartheid regime did on that day must never happen in our South Africa.

In SA, we have a government led by the African National Congress (ANC) which has been at the forefront of struggles to liberate the people of South Africa, including the struggle for media freedom, freedom of expression, access to information, media diversity and the right to communicate. This principle is reflected in the Constitution Act of 1996. South Africa has a constitutional legal framework protecting press freedom and a number of other pieces of law that promote editorial independence, media diversity, independent regulation and access to information. These include the Broadcasting Act, Electronic Communications Act, Media Development and Diversity Act, Independent Communications Authority of SA Act, Promotion of Access to Information Act, Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, etc. These attest to our country’s commitment to media freedom.

In the 22 years of our democracy, the right of the public to a free media is indisputable. It is an essential component of South Africa’s democracy which depends on informed citizens participating in all aspects of our society. There are many aspects to this, and for the media to play its role it needs to be trusted and seen as credible by the public. Independent and effective regulation is crucial to this, intended to act in the public interest and provide a means for redress if any publication breaches the fundamental responsibility of journalism – to tell the truth. These fundamentals are prescribed in the revised Press Code, after the recommendations made by the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) led by the late Chief Justice Pius Langa.

Ownership and control

Concentration of media ownership and control remains a challenge in the South African media landscape. This concentration is reflected across the value chain, publishing, printing, distribution, circulation, research and advertising. There have, though, been some changes in the sectors, including changes of ownership in print, the introduction of the New Age, the changes of ownership of Independent Newspapers and numerous licences awarded (subscription, commercial radio in the Free State and Eastern Cape as well as in cities, community radio and TV).

There remains, though, the existence of a lot of barriers to entry for new players, despite the hard work done by organs of state like ICASA, MDDA, Sentech, USAASA, NEMISA, etc. For example, there exist a number of community and small commercial print media, who all face the challenge of sustainability. The acquisition of small established titles/small commercial media by the big players works against the policy of media diversity as espoused by the legislative framework and warrants further consideration. This, among others, has led to calls for a probe and investigation by the Competition Commission of possible anti-competitive behaviour in the media industry. A number of rulings by the Competition Commission in recent years attest to this and warns against the increasing monopoly. The structural question and the dominance of the monopoly market forces need to be tackled head on, as part of the new transformational trajectory.

Whereas, as some may argue, the convergence of technologies driven by digitisation may be a rationale for some relaxation of ownership and control restrictions as is the case in some jurisdictions in the world, we need to understand the uniqueness of the historical context of SA and therefore the need for diversity.

Besides the TNA Media and Independent Newspapers, there remains domination by a few in the ownership and control of print and online media in SA. The SA Connect and Broadband strategy will help provide an enabling environment for all citizens to have access to information and knowledge. Digitisation and the increase of online media will co-exist with printed media for some years to come in the African context. Therefore, those who suggest that the transformation arguments are old-age debates are disingenuous. Print media remains powerful for some time and sets the agenda.

While a lot of progress was made through regulatory intervention in the broadcasting area, leading to transforming the SABC from a state to a public broadcaster, introduction of community broadcasting and licensing of commercial broadcasting services, viewed collectively, represent the diverse nature of our society. There remains a need for vigilance, so that the gains of our democracy are protected and reinforced into the digital future. The reinforcement of monopoly as seen through Naspers is a threat to our democracy. The advent of Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) was meant (among others) to strengthen free-to-air television (FTA), empowering FTA with multichannel capacity and quality television. This would ensure citizens have access to premium and diverse content to free-to-air television. It remains unclear, until we get the awaited court judgment, whether the adopted Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) policy will assist the potential of free-to-air television or whether we will have to rely on subscription television in the future for premium content. The potential losers in this battle, if FTA is not strengthened for the future, will be the poor and working class.

The SAHRC report published in August 2000, titled “Faultlines: Inquiry into Racism in the Media”, raises a number of challenges in our media, including the role it played during and after apartheid, racism, transformation, media diversity, language, etc.

Fifteen years after the publication of this report, some including editors like Steve Motale, Moegsien Williams, etc spoke frankly about these challenges, including referring to media acting as unelected opposition.

Moegsien Williams further said,

The state of journalism is worrying and, as guardians of this noble profession, we should do everything in our power, and with all the resources at our disposal, to rethink how we can realign our role in South African society. We have not found resonance among the majority of citizens, which is one of the reasons for our loss of readership.” (August 2015)

After raising a number of transformational question, Christina Stucky, in her article, “Fear and Loathing in the Media: Dealing with Racism” writes:

These questions can only be answered if media practitioners and newsrooms examine their own cultural and racial attitudes. The SAHRC inquiry and the TRC media hearings must be brought to their logical conclusion through a process of self-examination that asks journalists and editors to engage with their individual belief systems. An understanding must be reached that one of the functions of the media is to reflect society back to itself. Until that understanding includes personal journeys into the heart of diversity, race and cultural sensitivity, the process of transformation in the media will not be complete.”

Several findings and recommendations of the SAHRC report remain relevant today. Therefore, to dismiss calls for media transformation as a ruse for the politicisation of the media would be disingenuous and can only be said by those who benefit from the current status quo.

In the enjoyment of the rights protected in our Constitution, in pursuit of the application of freedom of expression principle, we must ensure there is a diverse media that reports fairly, factually, balanced reporting and conducts itself having regard to the constitutional rights of others.

The 4th Parliament probed these challenges towards ensuring a transformed and diverse media. In response, the media established a Print Digital Media Transformation Task Team which made several recommendations. These need to be considered along with the findings and recommendations that arose from the MDDA research reports, Rhodes Journalism Review (August 2000), Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (May 2004) and others. Transformation is a constitutional imperative for all in our country. It is not only about equity but about societal changes reflective of our democracy.

On 6 May 2016, Minister of Communications, the Honourable Faith Muthambi, presenting the Departments Budget Vote 2016/17 said,

We will during the second quarter of the financial year host a colloquium on Print Media Transformation with all role players including the public. Last year we also committed to developing an overarching National Communication Policy to refocus and improve government communication in all spheres. I am happy to report that this has been completed and is being rolled out to departments and entities.”

Transformation

We should all now focus on giving input to this planned colloquium, having regard to the recommendations already made by the very many initiatives mentioned above and propose the kind of policy intervention required to provide a framework for a democratic media landscape in SA. This must encompass all areas requiring intervention in a radical way, fast-tracking transformation and media accountability mechanisms. In addition, we need to develop viable models in view of the advent of new technologies and platforms.

An example of the kind of interventions needed now, 22 years (into) our democracy, is like the commitment made by the SABC in compliance with ICASA Local Music and Content Regulations, to go beyond the minimum quotas prescribed in law and ensure 90% local music on all radio stations and the local content commitments with respect of the other genres of programming on television and radio. Such must be welcomed and supported as it gives meaning and effect to the Broadcasting White Paper of 1998 and the ICASA (formerly IBA) regulations. The regulator must now monitor compliance to this obligation and commitment. The regulator needs to be strengthened in order to ensure policy objectives are achieved in the public interest.

With particular reference to the print media, whereas we note the current existing improved form of “co- regulation” as expressed in the form of the Press Ombudsman/ Press Council, subsequent to the PFC report. While welcome, it is not adequate to sufficiently protect the rights of the individual citizens, community and society as a whole. Media has selectively implemented the recommendations of the PFC. As a result, we still see increasing noncompliance with the Press Code by several media houses, with little consequences. Even the few recent rulings by Judge Ngoepe on appeal, as in the case of Sunday Times vs Kasrils, have not been incorporated into the Press Code. The question of effective consequences of noncompliance with the Press Code and sanctions thereof remains a gap. We need the establishment of an independent, effective regulatory mechanism.

Conclusion

Transformation is a constitutional imperative. Media, like every industry, is not exempted. Media is also subject to the Constitution and the law. It is now time for action towards radical transformation. The market has failed and interventions are necessary to achieve real transformation. We should refuse to be diverted through a media narrative that interprets interventions selectively in order to emphasise one aspect of the actions proposed. To take us forward, we have to engage on a holistic intervention, touching every aspect, from transformation across the value chain, to promotion of media diversity and strengthening of media accountability mechanisms.

The 5th Parliament needs to conduct a follow-up probe on media transformation and diversity, leading to new policy interventions and legislative amendments that must ensure a media reflective of our country in the entire value chain, from ownership and control to content, languages, class and gender, audit bureau of circulation (ABC), distribution, research, etc.

Media is power, and that power needs to be used to contribute towards the building of a new society and be accountable for its actions. SA has been talking about transformation of our media since the advent of our democracy; it is now time for more action. All citizens must enjoy media freedom. DM

Paper presented by Lumko Mtimde at the Media Transformation debate hosted by the School of Literature, Language and the Media.

  • Lumko Mtimde
    Lumko-Mtimde.jpg
    Lumko Mtimde

    Lumko Mtimde is an ICT, media and broadcasting policy and regulatory expert and former CEO of Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA

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