Joel Netshitenzhe - FXI/NCMF workshop on a media development agency

14 July 1999

14 July 1999

The need for and role of a media development agency

Thank you, Chair. I should start off by thanking the National Community Media Forum and the FXI for allowing GCIS to be a partner in the implementation of a project whose time has long come. We'll all remember that the issue of an MDA-type of organisation was one of the priorities that we talked about as we prepared for governance in the early 90s. But as always happens, some media issues are put on the back-burner whilst people are dealing with the more critical questions of socio-economic change. But I think experience over the past five years has confirmed that such socio-economic change is not possible, or will not move with the pace that we want, and with the kind of involvement of the people that we want, if we do not have a requisite media environment.

But perhaps that this project was delayed has got its own silver lining. One element of this is that we can go about the project in a measured pace with some experience of governance and with our idealism tempered by the realities that we have come to experience. It has got its silver lining also from the point of view that the conflict - sometimes necessary, sometimes perhaps too acrimonious - between government and the media, has forced us to pose the question: Would this conflict have taken those forms had there been greater diversity in South Africa's media?

After our formation as GCIS, we went about establishing our structures and after about a year we can say that the unit that has to deal with these matters of media diversity has now been properly constituted. We poached from your ranks people like J P Nkuna, Chris Vick, Devan Pillay and others, and perhaps it's because of that, that we are able to work as partners.

I was informed that this is a working meeting and I will try to be as brief as possible. I was warned that I should say as little of possible of my own personal opinions. And so in my brief input I will state just a number of principles that underpin the approach of GCIS and by extension, government, to this issue of the Media Development Agency.

Principle 1
At the inauguration as well as at the opening of Parliament, President Thabo Mbeki used the refrain a number of times, "a nation at work for a better life". And through this he was underlining a principle that should inform the style of governance: a principle of partnership between government and various structures of civil society as well as the population as a whole. And it is in the same spirit that GCIS is joining FXI and NCMF so that this matter which is of common and passioned interest amongst us, is approached in a consultative spirit; where all of us can benefit from the collective wisdom of professionals in this area, so that we can all be part of a society that is in a process of self- discovery, a society that is experiencing the joy of creation.

And therefore in a sense, our task is how to fashion as untainted a mirror as possible for our society so that it knows itself better, so that it reflects itself better. This is the essence of our partnership. And perhaps to paraphrase the President, the process that we are launching today, which, as has been indicated, will go to the provinces, reflects the reality of ‘communicators at work to build a better media’.

Principle 2
The MDA project, in our view, is about creating an enabling environment which should be a catalyst for the transformation of what one can call the mediums of communication in general. One states this because the temptation always arises in such discussions, to veer off into a debate about what the ideal content of the media should be. Of course the issue of this ideal content of the media is quite critical and we have got reason to complain about many, many things - not only as government but also as citizens.

Just to quote some recent examples. Those who studied the weekend papers will have noticed, if I'm not mistaken, that only one of them referred to the formation of the Special Investigation Unit, the Scorpions, something which was announced on Friday. Whereas, if there had been some crime incident, that would have received major prominence. Why is it when a major initiative of this nature is taken by government, there's very little reflection of that?

At that same press conference there was also an announcement regarding the National Lottery. And the relationship between these two is that at the opening of parliament, the President had said that within fourteen days there will be a consummation of the processes leading to the formation of the Special Investigation Unit as well as an announcement regarding the Lottery. And from a different angle, one can pose the question, whether, if those announcements had not been made, anyone would have noticed. So do we have a media that is truly monitoring the activities of government or is it media that waits for someone else to make a statement that things are wrong and it's only then that we notice.

Another good example is that over the past five, six days, those who have been watching SABC television will have wondered what the President of the country had been doing in the various forums which he attended. For instance, on the signing of the Congo Peace Accord, I strained my eyes to check whether our President was there. On the OAU Summit - I’ve strained over the past two or three days to check whether President Mbeki was in Algiers. Save for a fleeting reference, we didn't even see his photograph. Perhaps there are other more important things that SABC has to reflect when it reports on such summits, but what I know is that other public broadcasters, not only in Africa, but also in Europe, in the Americas and elsewhere, will first and foremost want to report to their people what their President is doing in engagements of that nature. That's the end of my complaints!

The point that we are making is that yes, there will always be debate about content, but in this process towards the establishment of the MDA, we are not seeking to create media which will report what we as government believe is objective and correct. Our belief is that the overall balance of objectivity should be the consequence of diversity: as we change the make up, the content should reflect society in general. So one could even exaggerate to say, paraphrasing Kwame Nkurumah, seek ye first the media diversity kingdom and all else will follow. I'm saying this is an exaggeration in part because many other things would need to happen, all of which I suppose will feature during the course of our discussion.

Principle 3
It will be dishonest on our part to pretend that an undertaking of this nature will be devoid of self-interest. Everyone and every institution pursues a course, in part, out of self-interest. And in so far as government is concerned, variety in ownership and content, we believe, will help to break the monopoly of the means of discourse that in many respects still reflects the old social order, the reality of a fourth estate that lags behind other social institutions in the project of social transformation.

We believe that the established media houses also have a self-interest in participating in this project: to be seen to be embracing change, but also materially to seek to benefit from an expanding readership and listnership. A person who gets used or develops a culture of reading a community newspaper will in time want to read the other newspapers.

Community media of course also have their own self-interests and that is to get resources in order to survive in a cut-throat environment that snuffs the lives of the weak and fattens the powerful.

So yes, there is narrow self-interest in our participation in this and the challenge is how together, to harness these diverse interests into a groundswell of common interests.

Principle 4
This groundswell of common interest should derive its power from a consensus that we all share and that is a consensus that was aptly captured in the submissions of the FXI and NCMF and others to the Communication Task Group which was established by the then Deputy President and which culminated in the formation of the GCIS. That is that the media environment should change, that such change should be meaningful and it should therefore encompass the area of ownership, composition of the newsrooms, issue of distribution and printing.

I suppose we will all agree that what currently exists is inequitable. Ken Owen summarised this succinctly, and he did so before he indicated, I think, who he was going to vote for. And to quote him:

"What has existed in South Africa for many decades has been a cartel involving joint distribution, joint control of SAPA, joint purchases of newsprint, uniform pricing, co-ordinated policies and advertising, exchange of information on salaries, and lately, joint printing or joint ownership of nominally rival publications, or joint ownership of printing plants. This situation has been accompanied by a measure of market rigging".

Though he was essentially reflecting then on a rival company, this applies to all of them combined. And indeed here, the saying is truer than anywhere else that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Lindsay Smithers, in reviewing developments over the past twelve months, was as bewildered as any of us and to quote him: "This is certainly the year for media owners. They merge, they change staff members, they change ownership, they just change." So barring developments in the electronic sector in so far as radio in particular is concerned, the status quo in print is not as diverse as any democracy would be comfortable with.

Principle 5
It is in recognition of this anomaly that all kinds of initiatives have existed over a number of years and some of them have just been launched to try and rectify the situation. I believe there is a coincidence of interest here and perhaps even mutual causality amongst all the initiatives from the IMDT to the Print Media Diversity Trust. But as we act disparately, we need to ensure that self-interest does not pull us in different directions.

Instances of this could be: for government to develop the arrogance that it has got universal wisdom on these issues and try to impose its views and approach on others; for private media interests, to seek to pre-empt popular initiatives so that they can then exercise exclusive and selfish control; for community media and small media to rest on their laurels, ignoring the reality of the markets, the need for prudent management, expecting manna from heaven, and above all, for them, once these bodies are established and resources made available, to abuse these resources.

So as we engage in this process, we need to frankly acknowledge the possible pitfalls and from the very beginning, ensure that we obviate possible mistakes.

Principle 6
The body that we seek to create is not the be-all and end-all to addressing the problems of diversity of ownership and content. We will further need to debate the question of the very essence of the role of the media in a democracy and how this relates to the issue of public service.

The MDA itself will need to operate in a way that empowers rather than entrenches dependence; and measures will need to be investigated regarding the broader issue of media policy in South Africa and how to address, as I was saying earlier, issues pertaining to distribution and printing. In other words, the MDA forms part of a bigger process of transformation, a process that should address all elements of the media environment. This is not for its own sake, but to ensure that media in general become, in today’s South Africa, mainly development media; or rather communication becomes part of the general approach of communication for purposes of development.

In his address to the opening of parliament, the President said that amongst other things. government is looking at a rural development strategy. Why, he posed the question, should a clinic be built, only to discover down the line that there is no road to that clinic for ambulances to go and fetch patients, that there is no electricity, there's no water. And perhaps as media activists, we need to add to that question: why should it be that in such a community there should not be media through which people can engage with one another?

Principle 7
We believe that the process that we are launching today correctly reflects the style of partnership and widest possible consultation. But I think there is a weakness that we'll need to keep in mind, and that is to ensure that this process has time frames so that we do not engage in an endless process of consultation, and not end up with the establishment of what we believe should be set up.

I was told that one visitor from India observed, after staying for a few weeks in South Africa and attending all kinds of seminars, that South Africans are a very complex people. When they want to scratch their left ear, they will take their right hand and move it across instead of using the left hand.

We believe that this partnership should reflect itself in this whole process towards establishing the MDA but as GCIS, we propose to convene what we have referred to as an Interim Media Diversity Council in September 1999 which will include the Print Media Diversity Trust, the Open Society Foundation, Community Development Trust, Kgaso Fund, the IMDT, National Film and Video Foundation and others, so that we start the process of examining how the various initiatives that already exist can work together towards the establishment of the MDA.

Principle 8
There is no debate that important as it is, the market cannot address the issues that we face. That is why we need an MDA. Problems of concentration that I have referred to dictate the need for a Competition Act, which is applicable also to the media. And it is precisely because of market failure that you need to ensure that those who do not have access to resources can get that access in order to participate equitably in the media environment.

Principle 9
We need to learn from international experience and would want to welcome, as GCIS, our international guest, Paul Murshetz, and we hope that in his presentation he will not say only those things that are pleasant to us. There have been successes. There have been failures and there might even be some rethink in the region where he comes from. And perhaps having listened to his presentation we will need to pose to ourselves the question: Do we need to go the same route so that we reach their level of development and can then afford the luxury of rethinking, or how do we avoid the pitfalls?

Principle 10
We will also need to reflect, as we talk about the MDA, on an issue that might seem obvious: What is media? As we go to the provinces and talk to media activists, I think we will need to keep in mind the other means of communication people in the village and in the townships, use in order to get their information? Is it just print and radio? What about other forms of communication such as folklore and so on?

On our part as government, we have brought together various departments including the Department of Communications that deals with radio matters; and their Kgaso Fund initiative, they have agreed, will ultimately reside under the MDA. But we have also brought into the fold of this initiative the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, precisely because we are posing to ourselves the question, what is media?

In conclusion, there are many other difficult questions that I hope this consultation will start to address. One of them would be, with the existence of the National Development Agency that was established by an Act of Parliament last year, should the Media Development Agency become a chapter of that National Development Agency or should it be a stand alone organisation?

Secondly, we all agree that there should be the greatest distance possible between the donors - be they private, international or government - and the actual disbursement of resources to the beneficiaries. But how do we ensure the accountability of the MDA? Related to this is a question that has already been posed: Should it be a statutory body or should it be a voluntary association whose operations depend on the whims of the associates.

Thirdly, can the MDA operate in a vacuum regarding the broader issue of a media policy in general? And in any case, what is media policy? Are its various elements not already found in the various Acts on broadcasting, culture and this process that we are involved in of establishing the MDA?

As GCIS, we have decided to be a partner in this process because we are confident that it will provide answers that we currently do not have.

Thank you.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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