One of the biggest challenges we have in the country as a barrier to accessing opportunities is information dissemination. A lot of people in urban centres of our country take this for granted. With close to 30 daily newspapers published in these key centres it is easy to assume that everyone has the same access to information about opportunities. This is false.
Very few newspapers of the mainstream kind reach many of our people and hence the medium of radio is so crucial. The effective use of the 18 radio stations of the SABC stands between us and reaching millions with information that empowers. It is for this reason that this week we prioritised pronouncements on the stabilisation of the SABC as well as the restructuring of the Media Development and Diversity Agency.
These two are crucial in achieving the information revolution that is required to bring our country in line with countries that have perfected the art of reaching their citizens on a regular and effective manner.
Print transformation is also at the top of our agenda. It is clear that without such thorough transformation very few owners will really make information dissemination their priority. What has become important is the overemphasis on the watchdog role of the press to the impoverishment of the press’s responsibility to empower citizens with information that can make them access numerous government opportunities to take them out of poverty.
No one can argue that the media must not be critical – that will be contrary to our founding document where freedom of the press is named specifically. But as citizens, newspaper groups must ask themselves whether the role they played over the last 20 years in building our new democracy can be improved. Surely that cannot be a wrong question to ask. The country’s focus on the National Development Plan (NDP) is a case in point.
Surely newspaper groups should be falling over themselves to clarify to their readers what the NDP is all about. For a document straddling some 400 pages this can’t be expected to be a once-off activity but an ongoing educational activity that everyone who has the capacity in the media should be taking on as a critical focal point of our future.
Every discussion right now is punctuated by a refrain that we ought to be implementing the NDP. In fact some in the media are already claiming that there is a delay in implementing it but the reality is the electorate has endorsed the ANC manifesto that includes the NDP as its cardinal focus. It is fair to allow the ANC to set out the implementation of this policy and integrate it into its sector-specific plans and budgeting process.
Some who have argued that there is no policy certainty are now having to eat humble pie because in fact the NDP creates that policy certainty. It is one document that has more consensus that any other since the adoption of the Constitution in 1996 – this ought to be big news. Of course it is less controversial than the questions that Numsa may be having and the criticism that it may be offering but does criticism of a policy render that policy unstable or uncertain? I argue not.
There are some who still question the provisions of the Constitution, labelling it a sellout document and calling for its amendment – no one has labelled that policy uncertainty. A democracy means people must have a right to agitate all the time and call for changes where they are unhappy. Such a right to question does not take away the right for a governing party with an overwhelming mandate from the people to implement its electoral mandate.
The point being made here is that like the NDP there are many issues that the media must be able to take on as part of its social consciousness, not because the government will gain anything from such activities. The empowerment of our people to ensure they can access information that will empower them is the responsibility of all of us. A stable SABC, a well functioning agency for media diversity and a transformed print media must be ingredients to improve the current information blackouts for the majority of our people. We will be examining what kind of investments all these bodies are making to this end.
Finally, the community media sector is crucial in our quest to empower communities with useful information. Many government departments do not spend as much on community media as they do on commercial media. The decision by the government that 30% of its media spend must address this sector is a good starting point. It is because of poor spending in this sector that many of these more than 200 radio stations cannot sustain programming. Surely this can’t be allowed to carry on. There is plenty of content that can be packaged and directed at this huge medium that is owned by communities themselves.
We cannot transform the sector if there is a persistent skewed pattern of spending across media. This is a matter we will spend sometime examining to ensure fairness as well as the much needed change.
The rise of community television is also heartening. How many public sector bodies are supporting these by directing their advertising expenditure to these stations? How many are seeing them as a useful platform to reach communities? My sense is that this has not taken root and may result in these stations struggling and eventually collapsing.
With the dawn of digital migration drawing close one can only imagine what kind of competition these fledging stations will face if the SABC adds multiple channels to its platforms. There is a need to reflect how we are going to deal with the complementarity of the existence of all these platforms ahead.
Whichever way you look at it, it cannot be business as usual on the information front. Our people must be empowered with information and we have the resources to do it. What needs rejuvenation is the political will across the stakeholder spectrum for a mind shift change on how we view information as power to our people.
Faith Muthambi is Minister of Communications. You can follow her on Twitter @faithmuthambi
This story was first published by The New Age newspaper. It is republished here with their kind permission.
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