Opinionista

Forum on Information & Democracy shines a light on government’s role in supporting the media industry

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Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

Earlier this year, I was asked by the Forum on Information & Democracy – an international organisation providing democratic safeguards to the global space of information and communication – to participate in a working group tasked with compiling a set of recommendations to help the ailing media industry. The group consisted of academics, media advisers and practitioners who often engage in staring contests with the existential crisis monster. The outcome is a 70-page report with a comprehensive list of recommendations calling for ways in which public service journalism can and should be supported.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

For most of Daily Maverick’s existence it has felt like we have been fighting with one hand tied behind our backs and these recommendations, if implemented, have the potential to be a global game-changer. The report is extensive in its findings, because the problems are so varied and require an environmental approach to solving this crisis. The borrowing of the “New Deal” terminology is also deliberate because this requires political commitment, economic investment and an active citizenry – exactly like president Roosevelt’s plan from the 1930s.

The report opens with a commitment to media freedom that is fundamental to any solution. South Africa, for example, has yet to join the coalition of 47 countries have signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom. Joining that coalition will mean we are accountable on the international stage to uphold the values of a free and independent media. The report offers practical options for media activists, regulators and practitioners to rally around and move from words to action – shaking off the victimhood mentality. To grind our way out of this crisis, all stakeholders will need to be involved in the solution.

The report acknowledges that the role of government is critical in how it can support the industry, in cold hard cash. Membership contributions and subscriptions to news outlets should be tax-deductible and publishers could be granted VAT exemption on those receipts. Tax incentives for media investors (like venture capitalists and film producers have received in SA) could be offered to stimulate new investments. There are many tools in the government toolbox that can be used to support the media ecosystem without affecting the independence of newsrooms. Other examples include making it easier for philanthropic support of newsrooms, regardless of legal structure, that would eradicate the 20% donations tax in this country, for example.

The report warns that if governments do not act then market forces will leave few winners and many spent publishers by the wayside. Those winners are likely to be digital platforms that are more likely to recommend a fake news story about fake babies than the kind of corruption-busting work that muckrakers do. The report calls for a global investment of 0.1% of GDP to be allocated towards supporting the independent media industry. Some might balk at this number, but not the Danes, who contribute 0.21% of GDP in direct funding, or France, which spends €1.8-billion annually before support for AFP newswire is accounted for.  

Yes, these recommendations will come at a cost, but the price of inaction is far greater. But before we dive into the opportunity cost argument (and SA is a case study in counting the cost of State Capture here), all of these proposals could be funded through two ripe and ready sources: 1) the billions of rands worth of revenue that leave our shores untaxed through Google and Facebook, and 2) the assets recovered through investigative journalism. Applying a turnover tax and a recovery rebate to the recovery of fraudulently acquired assets would more than cover all of these state initiatives, as well as look after the wellbeing of those whistle-blowers whose livelihoods are destroyed by speaking out.

We now have a guiding document and a road map for action, so we’ll be doing our bit to lobby for many of these recommendations to be adopted in South Africa. It’s time to untie our hands and help public service journalism flourish. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • There will always be that problem with a main funding of journalism from a single source – “he who pays the piper calls the tune” . To me, the multiplicity of advertisers and buyers of newspapers spread the income source and prevented a controlled narrative and defined agenda like what happened with Cape Times etc.