Media diversity

By Sandile Nene

Media diversity in any country is regarded as a measure of the depth of its democracy. It is therefore important that every citizen should have access to a range of media. A pluralistic and free media sector has always been needed to ensure that all voices in society are heard. The strengthening of the media sector arguably has a twin function-with media serving society as an agent of development and acting as an agent for economic growth by stimulating the growth of consumer markets.

The history of community radio in South Africa shows that the emergence of community radio stations was a result of a demand to break away from repressive regimes which were worsened by the dominance and monopoly of mass media. Similarly, community newspapers were the brainchild of the left-wing media activists and arose in the 1980s as anti-apartheid media and were generally known as progressive-alternative newspapers.

To put it succinctly, alternative media were the expression of community struggles, themselves located in the ‘national democratic struggles. This media not only challenged conventional journalism practices, but was organisationally connected to, and used the signs and codes arising out of, popular political movements such as the UDF, and labour movements such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

The community media sector can also trace its roots back to 1993 with the promulgation of the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act (IBA Act No. 153 of 1993). In addition, the Communications Task Report (1996) which established GCIS, recommended the establishment of a statutory organisation to operate a statutory recognised subsidy system for community media in South Africa. Further, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC 1994) also recommended that the state should promote a multiplicity of media voices by establishing a legislative environment and state subsidies to encourage the growth of grassroots publications and local broadcasting stations. It is also important to acknowledge the role played by South African community radio sector traces its roots back to the Cassette Education Trust (“CASET”) project and Radio Zibonele.

The community sector also acknowledges the role of the Jabulani, Freedom of the Airwaves Conference in 1991. The Conference established the key principles that would guide post-apartheid broadcasting legislation:

The establishment of an independent body to legislate broadcasting.
 A three-tier broadcasting system comprising commercial, public and community broadcasting; and
A definition of community broadcasting based on the principles of community ownership, control and participation.
Today, the South African community media sector is one of the most developed in the world alongside countries such as France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Australia, Hungary, Rwanda, Ghana, Great Britain which all have three segments (public, commercial and community) electronic media systems which is supported by policy, law and regulation.

In 2011 and 2015 the South African government published a Cabinet approved Community Broadcasting Support Strategy (CBS) which details challenges and recommended solutions for implementation in the community media sector. In addition, government has on its own through the Community Broadcasting Support Programme (CBSP) spent over R600 million on the sector between 2002-2021. This figure excludes ad hoc capacity building programmes undertaken by Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) and agencies such as Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (NEMISA) during that period.

Since its inception, the MDDA has funded 586 community media projects. This includes 321 community radio and community television stations, along with 185 community print projects such as community newspapers, magazines and small commercial print.

Those aspiring to embark on community media projects in radio, television, print and small commercial print are invited to approach the MDDA after they have been licenced by the Independent Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and are encouraged to approach or attend call for nomination roadshows periodically run by MDDA in all nine (9) provinces. The organisation also conducts outreach programmes to raise awareness on media development and diversity and assist interested parties with their funding application.

Those with a passion for community media should take up opportunities in the community media sector. Community media remains the heartbeat of vibrant smaller communities and adds to the plurality of voices we seek as a thriving democracy.

At the heart of our efforts is the development of community media, including community television, radio and print media, which allows people at grassroots level to voice their perspectives, concerns and actively participate in our democracy. In addition, community media are not for profit-but the sector is not for bankruptcy either! Judging by comments it can be concluded that while South Africa celebrated 100 years of broadcasting; 30 years of community media and 20 years since the establishment of the MDDA, there is no doubt that the sector in its entirety must be sustainable, must redefine its existence in the broadband and multichannel environment. The time for “bandage” solutions has gone and this is time for a major surgery to ensure that citizens continue to have access to a diversified media that engages people from different cultures through the use of indigenous languages and advances dialogue.

Last year the MDDA celebrated 20 years of existence under the theme: “Democracy and Diversity: Celebrating 20 Years of Access to Information and Media Freedom through community media.” Central to the MDDA’s efforts to develop community media and small commercial sector, is the transfer of ownership, control and access to media by historically disadvantaged groups. This includes previously marginalised cultural and language groups as well as inadequately serviced communities.

We call on South Africans to use the platforms that are now open to express a plethora of views and build the multi-cultural, diverse and informed society we all dreamed of. Let thousands of voices be heard through the many community platforms.