The public hearings on the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) Bill mark a critical stage on the path towards an agency that will help ensure that the constitutional rights of freedom of expression and information are enjoyed in practice by all South Africans.
The debate and discussion will take place in the context of a broad consensus on the need for such an agency to help address the legacy of imbalances in access to and use of the media; and on the fact that the endeavour can succeed only if founded on a partnership of government and the stakeholders.
The Bill is a product of extensive consultation over the past three years, as well as much research and comparative study. The complexity of the media sector has made the process of consensus-building a long one. The interaction has been comprehensive, focussing at different times on different stakeholder constituencies: community media as potential beneficiaries; government departments; the industry as potential source of funding; and all stakeholders together in public hearings facilitated by the Portfolio Committee.
The Bill provides for the establishment of an independent Agency that is rooted in a partnership between government, the media industry and the community media sector. It gives practical expression to a common interest amongst all those in the media sector in serving a citizenry that is informed, articulate and engaged in changing their country for the better.
Fundamental to the philosophy of the MDDA is that it will not involve itself in content. Rather it aims at overcoming the barriers to media development which have helped preserve the imbalances that still exist – lack of access to resources; training; education; literacy; amongst others. By helping overcome such barriers to media development the MDDA should promote a climate conducive to greater media diversity.
The MDDA’s primary function will be to provide and facilitate funding and other support – including training and capacity-building - to community media that serve the interests of various marginalised communities throughout the country. It will also provide some support to small commercial media and fund research that is relevant to media development and diversity.
The principle of partnership is reflected in the approach to joint funding of the MDDA by government, media industry and donors.
The consultation and public hearings around the Draft Position Paper published in November 2000 led to some changes with regard to funding. The proposed levy on advertising expenditure has given way to a voluntary approach. The target was lowered to R250m over five years or R50m a year.
Appreciating the need to demonstrate to donors that South Africans have the will and the capacity to make this initiative succeed, a concerted approach to donors for funding has been deferred, though the groundwork is being done.
However, with little or no precedent, government and the media industry have together mobilised funding to provide a secure foundation for the MDDA to start its work over the next five years as an independent body. The significance of the contribution by the media industry is made all the greater by the current context of a difficult economic period for the media industry.
What has already been committed by government and industry – subject to the completion of the legislative process; the drawing up of guidelines for the operation of the agency and signing of agreements – takes us beyond R40m a year.
The resources available should expand as the operation of the MDDA makes further kinds of contribution feasible: for example provision of training; and supportive policies for the placement of advertising by both government and private sector. Account has not yet been taken of any contribution from the Universal Service Agency with its new mandate for multi-media services; nor of potential contributions of donors.
In some instances years have separated legislation to set up an agency and the start of its work, because funds were not available. In the case of the MDDA however the funds are there for it to begin its work by the end of this year, assuming no unforeseen delays.
The principle of partnership is reflected also in the composition of the Board. It will be uniquely constituted to embody the widest range of interests and expertise – but it is also required by the legislation to act independently of those interests.
Four seats on the nine-person Board will be reserved for nominees of the community media, commercial broadcast media, commercial print media and government, through GCIS. In order to secure the Board’s independence, the legislation has provisions that mean that nominees will serve in their individual capacity, and not on behalf of the constituency that nominated them. In this context, independence is approached as relating to the conduct of board members rather than simply to the composition of the board.
The MDDA will have no regulatory powers. It will therefore have no capacity to encroach on the authority of the regulatory bodies that do operate in the media sector, such as ICASA, the Competitions Commission and so on.
Where the legislation refers to "regulations" these are guidelines that the MDDA will follow in its own operations and which relate to the assessment of projects for the allocation of support and to the Agencies annual consultation with the stakeholder community. The function of these regulations is to give effect to the legislation within the context of the policies informing the Position Paper.
In the same spirit, though the legislation provides for the Board to make recommendations for promoting media development and diversity, these would not be binding on stakeholders. However as the considered opinion of such a body such reports will carry great weight.
To the extent that such guidelines or regulations are required to give effect to the legislation within the framework of the Position Paper, they represent work that the executive must complete; to the extent that they need to be informed by engagement with the task of meeting needs for media development and diversity, they are a matter for the Board as the operational entity.
Hence the Bill provides for a joint determination, and for the regulations to be drawn up by "the Minister in consultation with the Board", implying full agreement between the two. The understanding is that regulations would be drawn up by the Board for approval by the Minister before being promulgated. In the interests of clarity some rewording of the legislation may be appropriate.
Whatever is decided, for the MDDA to become an operational agency it will need guidelines derived by the legislation and informed by the polices outlined in the Position Paper. The elaboration of those regulations is something that would need to involve stakeholders.
Once the legislation is passed by Parliament nominations for the Board will be called for, and it is envisaged that the MDDA will be operational towards the end of 2002.
cell: 084 556 2131
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)