Marking “Black Wednesday”: how to ensure media freedom

Mark Weinberg
A vibrant democracy needs community assets like radio stations. Photo by Masixole Feni.
Mark Weinberg

Sunday October 19 marks the commemoration of ‘Black Wednesday’, the day in 1977 that the apartheid government banned a range of publications sympathetic to the Black Consciousness Movement, and arrested a group of journalists and editors.

The government at the time declared that these publications were “publishing inflammatory material that threatened the nation’s security”.

Today South Africa is a democracy with freedom of expression entrenched at the foundation of our constitution. However growing unemployment and inequality are pushing social cohesion to its limits, and again we see government acting to suppress the free flow of information in the name of ‘national security’.

Now more than ever South Africa needs a media that is free and inclusive, able to serve the information and expression needs of all South African and facilitate the desperately needed but difficult national discussions to find a way out of the current impasse.

On Saturday 18 October the Right2Know Campaign will be holding a National Day of Action calling for an effective and diverse media and more democratic access to telecommunications that are both vital to realising our right to communicate.

Beyond the high profile threats to media freedom like the Secrecy Bill or proposed Media Appeals Tribunal, journalists in South Africa face increasing intimidation and legal threats from government. Media owners who dictate the type of stories journalists should cover also threaten journalistic freedom.

While journalists are in the business of informing the public, commercial media owners are in the business of business. This means increasing profit by cutting costs and increasing advertising. Most owners aim to cut their costs by retrenching journalists. The remaining journalists have to do even more work with less time and resources. These working environments produce less courageous journalism and more conformity to the needs of the owners and their advertisers.

Our media houses must all adopt Editorial Charters that limit the editorial influence of management and ensure journalistic freedom of expression.

One of the great advances of the 1994 negotiated settlement was the licensing of community broadcasters. South Africa now has over 200 community radio stations and five community TV stations. For those who live outside major cities, community media is the only alternative to the SABC and is often the only source of information on local issues that affect members of that community.

Community broadcasters should be non-profit, democratically controlled by their communities and with a mandate to serve the information needs of the poor and working class.

There are hundreds of small independent and community newspapers that – like the broadcasters – could give a voice to the voiceless, and hold local elites to account. But most small media face a daily struggle to survive.

They are largely dependent on advertising and must please their advertisers to maintain this trickle of income. In most cases Government is the largest advertiser, meaning that many community media organisations will find it hard to take positions that are independent or critical of government. They survive on crumbs and don’t have the funds to employ skilled and independent journalists, or hold discussions on the burning issues of the day.

Too many community media projects choose to play it safe by focusing on entertainment, doing ‘public relations’ for government or big businesses, and staying away from issues likely to upset local elites.

If we want a vibrant democracy we must invest properly in community assets like radio stations that give more power to the people, and that are democratically owned by the communities they serve.

If we want community media that serve the people, this must be paid for through the tax system.

We estimate it would cost community stations about R3-million year to offer a basic quality service. We must invest in non-commercial media. A good place to start would be to ensure every local community radio and TV receives a grant of R3-million a year.

Mark Weinberg is the National Coordinator of the Right2know Campaign. The Campaign calls on the public to join the National Day of Action for the right to Communicate this Saturday 18 October:

  • JOHANNESBURG: March from Media24/Naspers (69 Kingsway Ave) to the SABC from 10am.

  • CAPE TOWN: March for the Right to Communicate to Vodacom & Independent Newspapers from Naspers/Media24 (outside the CTICC @ 10am).

  • DURBAN: Mass Meeting: MEDIA FOR DEMOCRACY - 10am @ St. Philomena’s, 92 Rippon Rd, Sydenham.

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TOPICS:  Civil Society Government Human Rights Politics

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