Despite Monday's suspension of the Protection of State Information bill, pending more consultation within the ANC, anxiety is growing among activists, journalists, media commentators and, increasingly, the general public as media freedom is under threat. In tackling media transformation, the government needs to ask some hard questions of the broadcasting sector, rather than focusing its attention mainly on the print media.
The Protection of State Information bill, dubbed the “Secrecy Bill”, was not debated in the national assembly on Tuesday as originally scheduled. As it stands, the Bill is seen to be a major impediment to a free flow of information in the country. It does not define national security narrowly enough, criminalises the possession of classified information, doesn’t have a public-interest override and doesn’t have the necessary protection for whistleblowers among other flaws.
On top of the Secrecy Bill, there's also the proposed media appeals tribunal for the print media. The need for a tribunal (or otherwise) will be debated in Parliament on Thursday and Friday. The fears are that government will introduce a statutory tribunal. Commentators have argued that if the MAT is established, it could be abused by government and have a chilling effect on the free flow of information in the country.
It is difficult to justify the ANC’s reasons for needing to pass the draconian, and most probably unconstitutional, Protection of Information Bill. However, its reasons for wanting to introduce the MAT are more interesting.
In ANC 2010 policy documents, the party argued strongly for greater media transformation and diversity in the country. It has focused particularly on the print media. The ANC has pointed to print media concentration (four major media companies dominate the landscape) leading to a lack of competition and the marginalisation of small players. Also, the ANC has pointed to the commercial print media’s power in society and lack of accountability. It has pointed to sloppy and inaccurate journalism, the commercial print media’s sometimes sensationalist news agendas and their hostility to government (and their leniency towards the private sector). And, finally, the ANC has pointed to the print media’s alleged general marginalisation of the poor, rural, the elderly and children as audiences.
The solutions to these problems have been an investigation of a MAT, an investigation of stronger competition laws and calls for a transformation charter for the print media sector. Interestingly, policy documents have not focused as much on the problems with the transformation of the broadcast-media sector (covering the SABC, private and community broadcasters). Although the ANC certainly may have some points (the print media are no angels), the debates have been too narrowly focused to unearth the real problems and solutions to media transformation in the country. The debate needs to look at the transformation of the media sector as a whole. And the broadcast media cannot be left out.
It is important to look here at original government concepts of the media sector – and particularly the broadcast sector. The broadcast sector was conceptualised as a three-tier media system catering for commercial, public and community media sectors with distinctive mandates and audiences. The commercial media would inevitably focus on product placement and profitability. The role of public and community media sectors was to provide education, information and entertainment to all audiences, in particular audiences (and ideas) that were marginalised by the commercial media sector. But, sadly, for a myriad reasons, including the systematic under-funding and mismanagement of these sectors, they have ceased to play as effective a role as they should, thus placing enormous pressures on the commercial media sectors (both print and broadcast) to play this developmental role. It is certainly not a bad thing for the commercial media to be more developmentally sensitive, but the main need here is for the SABC and community media to be strengthened to play their key public information roles.
Secondly, in looking at media concentration, it is important that government doesn’t only focus on the print media. For instance, government has allowed, through policy and regulation, significant cross-media ownership between print and broadcasting and within the broadcasting sector itself. So, one of the critical issues to examine is the dominance of Naspers. Its ownership of the media sector dwarfs the ownership of other media companies. Naspers owns a significant share of the newspaper and magazine industry, subscription television on satellite – and now also subscription services on digital terrestrial platforms. Some strong competition questions need to be posed here.
Thirdly, there are some questions that can be asked about print media accountability, but this must be in the context of the safeguarding of the free flow of ideas. Equally there are some hard questions we need to ask if broadcasting regulation and in particular of South Africa’s regulator, the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (Icasa) is to play its critical role effectively. Through an ongoing systematic lack of monitoring, Icasa has allowed the SABC and the community media broadcasters to ignore their licence conditions, for the SABC to slip into serving up a diet of repeats and for the community media stations to morph into juke boxes.
So, what is to be done? Most importantly for our democracy we need to protect the public’s right to know and for the right of the media to provide such information without undue government restrictions and undue commercial bias. But going beyond that we must widen the pool of questions we are looking at. What is key now is that government focuses on strengthening the roles of the SABC, community media and Icasa to ensure they play their important public information roles. FAM
Kate Skinner is the co-ordinator of the civil society coalition SOS: Support Public Broadcasting
This column is part of a series that will run during Media Freedom Week, from 19 to 23 September. Free African Media is Media Monitoring Africa's online partner for this event.
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