The ANC Conference in December was without doubt the best and biggest media show in town. It came at a time when traditionally the media has to hunt for stories as key activities wind down and people go on holiday towards the end of the year.
Coverage of the conference was extensive across almost all media monitored by the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) and the level of political analysis seemed far greater than during election periods and other key political events.
Of course the most covered issue was the battle for the leadership and, while the events surrounding it made great news, it meant that the policies – of critical importance to all people in the country – which would be further debated and adopted were almost entirely sidelined.
The ANC policies on media have received greater coverage than other sections, and the majority of the coverage on the ANC media policies appears to have focused on the possible establishment of a media tribunal. With few exceptions media experts and bodies have at best been cautious of the idea but in general there is a legitimate concern that it may be used to limit media freedom.
It needs to be clearly stated that there are some very positive elements in the section on media. The emphasis on the need for media diversity, the importance of transformation, and the need to continuously strengthen the regulator ICASA (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) are all vital.
A key area that needs attention, is that ICASA needs to be strengthened and supported in dealing with and taking on the telecoms operators, Vodacom, MTN and Telkom in particular. Not only on issues of fees and technology but also on broader issues including issues of disability.
I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion on the draft regulations for broadcasters and electronic communications and postal services sector on meeting the needs of people with disabilities in late 2007. The arrogance, hostility and disdain with which Vodacom, MTN and Telkom in particular challenged almost every section which would involve them committing any form of resources was both disheartening and chilling.
Disheartening, because of the manner in which they chose to abrogate virtually all responsibility for supporting and agreeing with a truly progressive policy and chilling because of the power dynamics involved. Vodacom, MTN and Telkom have the money and legal resources to ensure any policy ICASA promotes remains caught up in legal wrangles.
As it stands, the only way ICASA will be able to move forward is if it regulates in line with the industry heavies’ best interests. It is therefore critical that ICASA is significantly strengthened to be able to regulate in the best interests of the public.
There are other sections that are laudable but require further public investigation and discussion, such as the changes to the SABC’s funding model. The SABC’s funding model has been the subject of extensive debate and criticism for many years and the need for change is to be supported.
That SABC should receive public funding is also something that warrants great support, but it is how this is achieved and whether the funding is guaranteed that is of critical importance. The policy asserts, “the state must substantially and urgently increase it support of the public broadcaster from the current 2% to a minimum of 60% by 2010”. (ANC Polokwane Resolutions c132).
This would certainly have a significant impact on the SABC but two aspects are crucial. Firstly, how the funding is provided from government – it needs at the very least to be an arm’s length relationship with government to avoid any undue interference or perception of interference from government and secondly, the funding needs to be guaranteed for some time to ensure that the SABC is able to move away from its corporate commercial culture.
The section on gender, while positive in its assertion that the media industry promotes gender parity, and that the media transform gender relations in and through the media (ANC Polokwane Resolutions c137 and c138) requires greater explanation as to how these ideas might be put into practice.
The battle of ideas
The section on the media is titled “communications and the battle of ideas”. The section is aptly titled as it reflects key concerns contained in the policies, but also hints at “battles” within the section itself. There are two positions taken with regard to the role of the SABC. The one is of encouraging the SABC to promote pluralism and diversity of opinions. “The role of an objective and progressive media is critical in building a vibrant democracy. The SABC is therefore strategically placed to foster the principles of the Constitution, social cohesion and nation-building.” (ANC Polokwane resolutions c106). See also clauses 125 and 144 through 147 as these emphasise diversity. These views are clearly in line with a view of a public service broadcaster that promotes pluralism and a diversity of views and is there to debate and critically evaluate.
In contrast to this, the policies also articulate a position which sees the SABC as being an integral cog in the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution (NDR).
“The public broadcaster, the SABC, continues to play a critical role in shaping opinions of our nation and therefore remains an important role player in the NDR.” (ANC Polokwane Resolutions C101). Clause 105 reads, “The accountability and fairness of the public broadcaster are central to the objective assessment of the gains of the NDR.”
In these clauses, the role of the SABC is as active agent in service of ANC policy based on ANC political analysis of South Africa, in facing, “…a major ideological offensive” (ANC Polokwane Resolutions c88). While this second view is understandable, and while the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) actively supports greater diversity in ownership and content, the view is at odds with separation of powers between the party, state and civil society. As such, it necessitates further explanation and clarification from the ANC as to on which role the ANC will base its plans and further policy regarding the SABC.
What is clear is the need and importance of unpacking and debating the ANC’s media policies, they will after all to a large degree form the basis of government policy which isn’t just an party political issue but will affect everyone living in South Africa. To hear Pallo Jordan’s views on the ANC media policies, download a podcast from a recent MMP Media@SAFm Radio conference at http://www.mediamonitoring.org.za.
By William Bird
This article was first published on TheMediaOnline.