By: Jane Duncan, South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za), 11 January 2009
Debates about the controversial Public Services Broadcasting Bill have focussed on proposed changes to the South African Broadcasting Corporation's (SABC) funding model, as well as attempts by the Department of Communications to exercise undue control over the SABC and the community media sector, ostensibly to ensure that the sector meets developmental state objectives. To this end, the Department requires the SABC to '[support] rural development, particularly in the areas of agriculture, job creation and [sic] economic-well being of people'.
These attempts at control are dangerous, as they may compromise the Corporation's editorial independence. Yet at the same time, a purely liberal response to the Bill - arguing for removal of powers of the Minister and the references to development - is inadequate, as it will not address clear deficiencies in South Africa's media system.
In order to develop an appropriate response to the Bill, some basic home truths about the nature of post-apartheid media transformation must be acknowledged. One of these is that the media offer few opportunities for issues affecting the poor and the marginalised to find their way into the public domain, which is a direct result of a reliance on commercial sources of funding.
Media development has balkanised along income lines. While claiming to be 'national' in scope, commercial news coverage is, all too often, driven by events in the wealthier metropolitan areas. Newsgathering may rely to an inappropriate extent on official sources, in the process failing to promote a diversity of viewpoints. Business news often dominates the schedule at the expense of labour news. Entertainment dominates the schedule, while 'uneconomic' genres - such as documentary and factual programming – are crowded out. English dominates at the expense of African languages, and political reporting tends to legitimise centrist politics, while marginalising politically extreme views. While the SABC is not as guilty as other media of these biases, they are nevertheless apparent in its offerings.
The media are meant to constitute an inclusive public sphere, providing common meeting points where problems affecting society as a whole can be debated, and then brought to the attention of those who can do something about them. But the lack of common viewing and listening spaces has negative implications for social stability, as it breeds a society that is unable to see itself.
Why, in a period of unparalleled media expansion, are there are significant numbers of people who clearly feel that the only way to make their voices heard is to take to the streets, block highways and burn down Councillor's houses? Many South Africans clearly do not feel that the media provide adequate platforms for expression of their frustrations.
The Bill makes some attempt to address these deficiencies in the media system, by shifting the SABC in a more non-commercial direction. To this extent, the proposed changes to the SABC's funding base are progressive, and should be supported. Also, proposals by organisations like the Democratic Alliance for a wholesale privatisation of the broadcaster should be rejected as retrogressive.
Yet, is it possible to retain the developmental focus in the Bill, without falling into the trap of state control of content? An alternative approach should recognise the importance of the sector meeting development objectives, but in a manner that creates spaces on the broadcaster for a clash of ideas around development.
The Bill's drafters have made a fundamental error in assuming that the state is the only custodian of development objectives; therefore, the realisation of these objectives necessitates greater state steering of the sector. It fails to recognise the capacity of poor people to be agents and drivers of change, and assumes that the poor and the state are in unison on the manner and pace of development.
This approach is wrong-headed, as it can lead to a singular definition of development being imposed. So programmes that support the government's definition of development are aired, while programmes that contest this definition may not see the light of day, as they do not promote the government's definition of social cohesion and the national interest. A broadcaster that falls prey so such censorship will increase social instability and promote maldevelopment, as it will fail to provide platforms for debate about the conditions for true development.
A state is generally considered developmental if its interventions in the economy are directed towards the country catching up with more developed countries industrially and technologically. The South African government has evolved its own definition from the East Asian model, involving manufacturing growth combined with authoritarian statist politics.
Globally and locally, the true development value of developmental states has been contested. This development model tends to rely on alliances between selected 'patriotic investors' and state technocrats, and is notoriously prone to rent seeking and corruption.
Patrick Bond has criticised the South African model for promoting maldevelopment, based on a combination of macroeconomic neo-liberalism and unsustainable megaproject development. He has cited infrastructure development around the 2010 World Cup, and the Coega port development project in Port Elizabeth as examples of projects that benefit local elites and multinationals - especially finance capital and construction firms - with scant benefits for the poor.
The standard government line is that mega-events such as 2010 will generate benefits that will have long-term positive impacts on host cities, yet their true development benefits have become a sore point in many host countries.
The 'crowding in' of investments around soccer stadiums have in many cases led to the 'crowding out' of investments in more distant areas. Jobs that are created may be temporary, causal and low paid. Huge investments have been made in facilities that are barely used afterwards.
When global sporting events come to town, they have also led to gentrification, as well as forced removals. Anti-loitering laws have been used to 'cleanse' the streets of beggars and the homeless.
Many host countries have encouraged media boosterism of mega-events, and disparaged critical questioning as anti-patriotic. Yet some journalists have decided to look beyond the hype and ask the really critical questions about the development benefits of mega-events. Will the SABC have the independence to do the same?
Not if the Bill is promulgated into law, as the institutional arrangements it proposes will not encourage independent journalism on South Africa's development model. In fact the Bill will probably heighten the SABC's culture of editorial timidity, where anything considered too hot to handle is shelved. The broadcaster has consistently misread a commitment to development journalism to mean pro-government journalism: an unfortunate tendency that will probably intensify if the Bill is promulgated.
The Department of Communications has stated that increased Executive oversight of the SABC is confined to financial matters only. A close reading of the Bill does not support this argument, as there are clauses that implicate the independence of the SABC's content, either directly or indirectly.
For instance, the Bill entrenches the existing arrangement where the Minister appoints the Group Chief Executive Officer, who is also the editor-in-Chief. This means that the Minister has indirect control over the SABC's most controversial content-related decisions.
What if "Special Assignment" discovers corruption in the tendering process in a 2010 project: an expose that could embarrass the local organisers in the eyes of the international community? The programme may suffer the same fate as the one on political satire, and not find its way onto the airwaves.
The Bill also states that the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) must develop criteria for the allocation of public broadcasting services funding for approval by the Minister in consultation with the Minister of Finance. This clause is inappropriate, as it opens the door for the Minister (or the MDDA for that matter) to weed out 'desirable' from 'undesirable' content. The broadcaster may also self-censor out of fear of not receiving its full allocation of funds.
To the extent that the Bill recognises the need for the broadcasting system to develop a pro-poor character, it must be supported. But what the Bill's drafters fail to recognise is that freedom of thought is an indispensible condition of development, as development imposed from above is no development at all.
Prof. Jane Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.
Please attribute The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za) as the source of this article.