The advent of democracy provided a breath of fresh air for democratic control of the electronic media. But not for long, it seems, as corporate capture of the airwaves is in the wings.
The airwaves are a limited electromagnetic spectrum that is needed to carry radio, TV, cell phone, and other broadcast signals that hovers above the land.. Like the original theft of our land, this new theft is made legal by government entrusted with regulating the airwaves.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (Icasa) is now preparing regulations that will govern how the airwaves are used once broadcasters move from the current analogue to digital broadcasting. The move to digital television should be welcomed because it will allow for many more TV channels to be transmitted using the same frequency. The process of deciding who controls the new channels will define the kind of television we receive for decades to come.
Under apartheid the government controlled television largely though a state broadcaster (the SABC). The 1994 negotiated settlement included a commitment to transform the SABC into a public broadcaster (not directly controlled by government) as well as the introduction of commercial and non-profit community broadcasting. These ‘three tiers’ of broadcasting where intended to ensure greater diversity of media and that working class communities would access to the airwaves.
Through 18 years of neoliberalsim public and community broadcasters where starved of public funding and left to compete for advertising revenue. This commercialization saw broadcasters pandered to the values and prejudices of advertisers and the interests of more wealthy sections of the audiences advertisers desired.
However, it now seems ICASA has all but abandoned the principle of three tiers of community, public and commercial broadcasting. The current draft ICASA regulation proposes giving 71% of the TV airwaves for commercial use compared to 3% for community use and 23%for public use.
At the direction of the Minister of Communications, the new draft regulations set aside 30% the airwaves for “new commercial interests”. This could be welcomed as it will introduce some competition and limiting the monopolies of incumbent’s ETV (free to air) and DSTV (subscription). However if noncommercial (public and community) TV is not defended, commercial competition may lead to a larger number of channels but will deliver a homogenization of content (more of the same sitcoms, sports, and soap operas) with little space for alternative information and perspectives.
The Right2Know Campaign and others are demanding that at least half of our TV stations are under public and community control. We are also calling for increased public funding of the SABC and community broadcasters so they have resources to serve the information needs of the majority.
Dominant players like NASPERS on the other hand has a very different agenda. NASEPRS is the media company created by the Apartheid government that today controls Media 24 (with close to 40 percent of total newspaper circulation), DSTV, shares in Face Book and more. NASPERS is a great threat to media diversity and hence media freedom in the fullest sense. Much of its power comes from comes from the undemocratic apartheid-era allocation of its majority share of the first pay-to-air TV channel in the 1980s.
If ICASA’s current division of the airwaves remains unchanged, NASPERS/DSTV will be a primary beneficiary of the commercialisation. But the company does not seem content with that.
A critical issue in the introduction of digital television is the roll out of set-top-boxes that will enable every household to receive the new broadcasts. NASPERS/DSTV are deploying a number of delaying and marketing tactics to ensure that before government rolls out set-top-boxes as many households as possible already have a DSTV decoder and may thus see little value in the expense and hassle of another decoder that will carry public and community content as well as the content of their competitors.
With limited newspaper and Internet access, TV is a critical source of information and culture for the poor and working class. We must struggle now to prevent the theft of the airwaves and ensure that the majority’s right to receive and impart information is advanced and people are not trapped in a commercialized world where there are many TV channels with little more than numbing pulp on any of them. Community Television will have a critical role to play in delivering meaningful diversity.
Mark Weinberg serves of the National Working Group of the Rgiht2Know Campaign and on the Board of Cape Town Community Television.