Wednesday, July 11, 2007

THE STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN SOUTH AFRICA

From Mzansi, Indymedia Joburg Publication
SABC: A VOICE FOR THE PUBLIC
OR A VOICE FOR THE STATE?
by Mpumi Magwaza
The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) facilitated a march to the public broadcaster (SABC) on the 16th of November 2006. The march included local social movements and traditional healer's organization. The focus of the protest was around the ever-big question of whose interest is SABC serving--the public or the private? The question is brought about by the biasness of the SABC especially with regard to the government's interpretation of public opinion. On the Traditional Healers side the outcry is the broadcaster's promotion of beliefs other than traditional African religions and that in South African television cultural programmes are seldom featured.

According to FXI this has been a long and tough debate mainly because the SABC has lost its accountability as a public broadcaster. FXI's approach to this campaign is to make sure that the SABC and other forms of media in South Africa remains to serve the public. According to the South African constitution everyone has the right to freedom of expression and access to information - both radio and television should serve that right as they are the most accessible. But this has failed to happen as ordinary people still feel that the SABC is serving the few, particularly the ANC which is the ruling party. They typically feature on the news bulletin every night. It is evident that the SABC has shifted its focus from a nation builder to a corporation. Over the past years SABC has adopted profit-making strategies, as most programming is exchanged with commercialization. Revenue has became more important than content. This by the way points directly to the steps of how globalization can manipulate such structures. Given that the demand of profit over content, the public becomes less important as it does not bring in any revenue. The question of the SABC's independence as a public service has been scrutinized by such campaign, that is the reason why debates on whether this corporation still makes it as a public entity still remains.There have been many other instances that have put the SABC on the spot: corporatization has been most visible through the changes in programming and a greater focus on advertising as the main source of revenue. The latest scandal on the blacklisting of political commentators and the canning of a documentary on President Thabo Mbeki has indicated that the SABC lacks its independence and serves the few and not the population as a whole. Just recently, the SABC paid R123,000 to the Leader Magazine to feature a profile on the Group CEO of the SABC, Adv. Dali Mpofu. This goes to show that media content is up for sale.

The FXI campaign does not only condemn the SABC but it also stretches into the whole South African Department of Communication (DoC) and its policies when it comes to the right to access information. Last year the DoC proposed a rather strange amendment to the Film and Publication Bill that proposed the censorship of all media. This bill raised some very important concerns regarding censorship and the direction that the media industry can take. Organizations such as the FXI and other media practitioners concluded that this would affect the freedom of journalists and the press at large.

The right to information and freedom of expression can never be accessible as long as the claws of capitalism cling on. For any ordinary citizen to access such rights resources should be made available and issues should be relevant at all times.

In South Africa media has taken the commercial route and this has impacted negatively on the freedom of expression and the right to access information. Radio is one of the tools that is used to reach millions of people. It is cheap to access and very useful in terms of sharing information. Through commercialisation of media from print media right up to broadcasting, media is in real danger of being crowded out by commercial interest. Even the community radio stations are being threatened by commercial interests. This kind of interest reduces the independence of community projects and gives prevalence to those with financial influence in society. Also the communication regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), makes it hard for community radio stations to exist without any heavy financial backing. The licensing processes and other maintenance expenses make it hard for community radio stations not to fall into the trap of going commercial.

Now if community radio stations fail to represent the voices of the community we surely need an alternative. If not we need to fight for better license provisions for community radio. For as long as the commercial influence is there, the content remains in the hands of those who can afford to buy it. For example, the only community station in Soweto sold a slot to Operation Gcin' amanzi (Save Water) a project by the government to install pre-paid water meters. This is a violation of the right to free expression because only those who can pay can have a say. In such instances we then start to experience the need for another community radio station, where an alternative space is provided in which people can express themselves and promote the real pressing issues in our communities. The struggle for such a medium of expression has produced initiatives such as Rasa fm, a pirate radio station organised by young people from Soweto.

THE FIGHT FOR COMMUNITY RADIO STATIONS AGAINST COMMERCIAL MEDIARASA FM is an Indymedia project that started as a space created for the community in Soweto; the agenda was to focus on community development and issues affecting the community. The youth from Soweto sought this space because the already existing community radio station does not represents the community especially the youth, instead advertising and any other money making methods are taken over. Even though Rasa FM was illegally connected, it raised awareness on how low the standards of our community stations are. Communities in South Africa need not only one station per township. But this is one of the license provisions by the ICASA. Community radio stations can't be allocated according to geographical divisions. A definition of a community is not singular therefore the need for diversity should be emphasized.

The communications authority makes it almost impossible for people like the RASA collective to apply for licenses; the application process takes long and some of the requirements are contradictory.
For example :
• The community radio station should be fully controlled by a nonprofit entity and carried on or to be carried on for non-profitable purposes.
• Besides the licensing fee, monthly fees are payable to the government for signal transmission.
• Broadcasting act states that community broadcaster services may be funded by donation, grants,
sponsorship or advertising or membership fees.
• The ownership of the community broadcaster should be full owned by the community.

The Rasa collective find all this very contradictory. Firstly if the broadcaster is sponsored, the sponsors will have certain control over the station. The same applies with advertising and all sorts of financial backing. The limitation of having only one radio station per community is unreasonable. This policy automatically stops RASA FM from applying for a license for another community station in Soweto. The main problem arises from funding because financial power is given control over community interests in the radio station.

Community radio stations do not need to be limited by financial burden, because this causes a shift of focus on what or who the community station should represent. Because of legalities RASA FM was closed down after threats made by the communication authority and with the help of the police. Communication regulators should commit themselves to making sure that the already existing stations abide by the rules and follow procedures. Communities should be the core decision makers on how the station should operate. For alternative and diversity we need stations like RASA FM.
jozi city January 2007

1 comment:

Anelisa said...

I believe what is inthe article in essence is true but my quamis in reguard with the fact that in the article it is stated that revenue has shadowed content.We must admit that the sabc can`t function without revenue, how are they to pay their employees without revenue maybe the comment should have been structured to reflect that revenue has shadowed relevent content.By the way I happened to stumble upon this article in my research of "is content more important than advertising". My name is Anelisa Kubheka and I am a 2nd year journalism student at DUT.

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