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Pictured: Rod Amner. Photo by Greg Roxburgh
Pictured: Rod Amner. Photo by Greg Roxburgh

20 Years of Democracy in The Press

Bill Gates warned that we always overestimate the change that occurs in two years and underestimate the change that occurs in ten.

While South Africans like to bemoan the general lack of transformation in the democratic era, Gates is on the money here, which is why I’m not going to underplay the profound changes that have both battered and transmogrified the South African press landscape in the last 20 years of democracy.

In a single, ‘born-free’ generation the world’s access to information has shifted from relative scarcity to massive surplus. Under apartheid most people would have had access to couple of newspapers largely owned and controlled by the white minority, and a sprinkling of lame TV and radio stations dished out by the Apartheid’s chief propaganda arm, the SABC. Nobody had a cellphone or a satellite dish and very few had personal computers. The internet existed, but few people even knew how to use email.

Twenty years into democracy people can now access virtually all of the world’s news and information instantly at home, office or in their hands wherever they may roam. This signifies an epochal change perhaps more profound that the invention of moveable type, or any past development in media technology. A 30-year-old man living in an informal settlement in Joza with an internet enabled cellphone has instant access to more information that the President of the US did at the time of this man’s birth.

Well, at least in theory.

In reality, none of the 40 000 people who live in Joza township have ADSL at home (because Telkom refuses to install it, for fear that its cables might be stolen), over 65% of Grahamstown’s citizens don’t have a place of work (and few of those who do have a computer workstation there), and data is still too expensive to substantially access information on cellphones.

In their quest to access relevant local information few Grahamstonians can afford Grocott’s Mail’s R7 cover price. In some respects, then, the more things have changed globally, the more they’ve stayed the same locally.

On the upside, however, Rhodes Journalism students are helping both RMR and Radio Grahamstown provide free local news services through local airwaves. The opening up of community media represents one of the ways the ways our media industry has changed, but the sector’s support body, the Media Diversity and Development Agency, is woefully underfunded.

There has been plenty of other ‘transformations’ in the media sector, however. The explosion of tabloid and isiZulu language newspapers in the past decade has demonstrated the latent demand for lively, relevant news products in the country. The success of these ‘lower-LSM’ newspapers has helped to hide and ameliorate the steady attrition to mainstream newspaper circulations over the last two decades. In the higher LSM-market, most citizens have abandoned the ritual of watching the evening news on SABC or etv and instead get their information from multiple DStv and internet channels.

During this time, there has been a wave of foreign investment flowing in and out of the industry and an increase in black ownership of the press. But, according the Reg Rumney of the Rhodes Centre for Economic Journalism, Government media continue to dominate media consumed by the majority of citizens and there is a lack of diversity in media voices, thanks to increased corporatisation, monopolisation and the absence of competition.

For Rumney, technological disruption promises real change, and the emerging politico-economic forces on the Press should enable less partisan and more professional journalism than in the past. But for the moment, those same forces keep a lid on dramatic change in what is available to the public.

For example, politics still dominates what passes for governance at a highly dysfunctional SABC. And over the past two decades of democracy, and especially after Mandela’s departure, the ANC and the commercial press have engaged in bitter ideological stand-off. The ANC has accused the commercial press of:

–          an infatuation with an unfairly adversarial and vindictive brand of watchdog journalism;

–          the privileging of freedom of the press over the rights to dignity and equality;

–          a lack of accountability and a neglect of poorer sections of the media market;

–          failing to support ‘national interest’, ‘nation building’ and the developmental goals of the post-apartheid state.

In turn, sections of the commercial media have raised shrill voices against attacks on their performance and on their independence (through, for example, Media Appeals Tribunal) and Protection of State Information Act), and have accented related concerns that a more collaborative relationship between the state and the media would result in ‘sunshine’ and ‘sweetheart’ journalism.

Both sides have valid points. But, the needs and interests of the public have been trampled in the war between these bull elephants.

But, it is not all bad news. The Press has invested heavily in investigative journalism in the recent past and citizens are highly informed of public issues and political events. The information they get helps them to be both positive and critical of government and the political parties. They see what government is delivering, and where it is lapsing, beyond their own communities. They see the ANC telling its story; they directly observe opposition parties parading their best.

Yet, despite all this, public discourse is ill-tempered and fractious – witness the heckling and jeering that had passed for political debate in recent election coverage. We have a surfeit of hot air and unlimited information on the web. But, what we do not yet have is the mature public sphere we deserve as citizens. As Wits University’s Prof Anton Harber laments, South Africa is one of the few countries in which newspaper readership and sales are going up, but there is less and less independent, critical journalism that can feed the public debate so essential to the development of democracy. And that is the tectonic shift we will have to make in the next 20 years.

 

Pictured: Rod Amner. Photo by Greg Roxburgh
Pictured: Rod Amner. Photo by Greg Roxburgh

Rod Amner lectures Writing & Editing and Journalism, Democracy, Development and Critical Media production in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University. He is a former editor of the Development Media Agency, which distributed a development news service, and provided training courses and outreach support to over 20 community radio stations and newspapers. He serves on the RMR Advisory Board, the Faculty of Humanities, the RU Teaching and Learning Committee, the RU Community Engagement Committee, the Grahamstown Friends of the Library Committee.

 

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