The Future of Public Broadcasting

by Aug 5, 2010All Articles

By Mark Weinberg

This article appeared in the January – March 2010 edition of Amandla Alternative Media publication. It provides an overview challenges confronting community media and the impact of the proposed Public Service Broadcast Bill including financial sustainability, the role of local government, participatory democracy and community ownership and control. The Publication also included the regular quarterly Amandla! Alternative News calendar for January to March 2010

In October 2009 over 80 community media stakeholders – including the national and provincial leadership of the National Community Radio Forum (NCRF) – gathered in Johannesburg to reflect on the state of community media in South Africa. The Community Media Reflection Conference (CMRF) confirmed the vision and principals contained in the NCRF Charter and developed resolutions mapping a path for an independent media able to play its critical role in promoting social and economic justice.

Only weeks later the Department of Communications (DoC) released a Public Service Broadcasting Bill proposing far-reaching changes to the regulatory environment. Some elements of the sector’s Community Media Reflection Conference Resolutions and NCRF Charter support proposals in the Bill, some stand in direct contradiction.

Funding Community Media

The Community Media Reflection Conference called for a funding model that would lessen the dependence of projects on advertising income and provide them with the resources to produce quality content. The Conference resolved that “there should be an annual state subsidy for radio stations and other forms of community media that comply with all regulations and requirements on the basis of the ‘public good’ of the media”. In this context the Public Broadcast Fund proposed in the Bill should be welcomed by the sector.

However, it is not clear how large the Fund will be and how much will be allocated to community projects considering it must fund the SABC, the signal distributor (SENTECH), community broadcasters as well as independent producers and commercial stations that produce ‘public broadcast content’. Community media projects are going to have to be vigilant to ensure the sector gets its fair share of this Fund.

An additional concern is that it is not clear if the Treasury has agreed to this part of the Bill, or if they will have the money to fund it: the global recession has slowed South Africa’s GDP growth to minus 1.9%; with sales and profits down companies are expected to pay R21 billion less in tax in 2009/10; consumers are spending less so VAT receipts are likely to be R31 billion lower; Customs & Excise will collect R9 billion less because imports are down. Overall, Treasury expects tax revenues for 2009/10 will reach R658 billion or R70 billion less than the R728 billion optimistically projected in February 2009.

Thus community media will not only be competing with the SABC and others for their slice of the Fund, but also with other development priorities like housing and education, for a slice of the government fiscus.

The People shall govern: A participatory democracy

Community Media was born out of the struggle for a democratic society expressed in the vision outlined in the Freedom Charter with its first clause: “The People Shall Govern!”. This clause refers to four inter-related dimensions of popular democracy: electoral democracy, administrative democracy, constitutional democracy, and participatory democracy.

Participatory democracy requires strong institutions outside the state directly controlled by organised communities – institutions that can articulate community perspectives, facilitate democratic processes within the community, and enable the community to engage the state. To enable such a participatory democracy the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) stated: “Open debate and transparency in government and society are crucial elements of reconstruction and development. This requires an information policy which guarantees active exchange of information and opinion among all members of society. Without the free flow of accurate and comprehensive information, the RDP will lack the mass input necessary for its success.”

In recent years the idea of a ‘developmental state’ has gained popularity and the Bill embraces the idea, stating the purpose of the community media should be to “advance the developmental goals of the Republic”. Here there is a risk of a shift in the government’s conceptualisation of the sector, from a sector that enables participatory democracy and the basic human rights of freedom of expression and access to information – to a sector that serves the ‘developmental objectives’ of the state. It is well known that there need not be any correlation between a ‘developmental’ state and a democratic state. In fact many successful ‘developmental states’ (such as the Asian Tigers) function without democracy – let alone the participatory democracy where people are organised and can freely dissent, engage the state with independence, and in doing so shape their own development trajectory.

The Role of Local Government

The Community Media Reflection Conference affirmed the freedom of media projects to engage with all stakeholders including different tiers of government. The Bill (20. (iv) (d)) however says community stations “must forge partnerships with local government as a locus of development”. The Bill removes this freedom and obligates projects to ‘partner’ local government. The Bill does not ‘task municipalities’ (who already have many unfunded mandates) to support community media, but instead tasks media projects to collaborate with local municipalities. But is it a partnership if you do not choose it?

The Bill suggests municipals officials should serve on radio Councils as ex officio members and goes as far as to force community radio stations to locate their studios in municipal offices. While this may be a lifeline for some projects that are struggling, there are also many well established community radio stations located in communities. They will be forced to more into government offices.

Community Ownership & Control

The  Community Media Reflection Conference resolved to call for the ‘sectoral ownership model’ where community ownership of projects is expressed not through individuals elected at populist Annual General Meetings, but rather through organised formations of the community (NGOs, CBOs, unions, churches, etc.) who would nominate representatives to the project’s Board. Projects could determine their own relevant sectors (e.g. youth, women, religion, workers) and sector representatives would ensure greater community accountability and stability for projects.

The Bill prescribes a Board (now called a Council) “democratically elected and appointed by the Community” (Charter 3.3.1) – in other words, the Bill seemingly maintains the current governance model.

Time to Engage: SOS – Support for Public Broadcasting

The SOS – Support for Public Broadcasting campaign is a broad campaign including major constituencies like COSATU and the NCRF. The campaign was launched in response to the crisis at the SABC but has recently resolved to broaden in focus to include issues of community broadcasting. This gives the sector a powerful platform and important allies to take up our issues.

While the Department of Communications refused to extend the initial deadline for responses to the Bill (set for 7 December, three days before the most democratic forum in the Sector (the NCRF BGM) sat to deliberate on the Bill, the DoC announced on SAFM that they do not envisage passing an Act before May 2010. There is lots of time and room for NCRF and other organisations to lobby, and lots of important issues that we can advance.

Read more on Amandla! Alternative Media: A Resource for Community and Alternative Media Activists

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