Opinion: Press Freedom Day
This may be acceptable to some, but with the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights, we should be number one in the world for press freedom.
Historically, news was conveyed solely by word of mouth and therefore the means of transmission was in the hands of private individuals. However, with the rise of mass media, the means of disseminating information became the preserve of commercial entities - entities motivated by profit.
Today, the narrative of our lives is therefore largely in the hands of corporations who's agenda is to tell our story in such a way as to serve commercial ends. Of course, closely allied to corporate interests are political interests. Politicians make the rules for business and it is therefore in big business’s interests to ensure that the politicians shaping legislation do so in very specific ways.
One sees this dynamic clearly in the American context, where there are 25.8 full time lobbyists dedicated to each of 432 Congressmen. That’s 11,145 lobbyists dedicated full-time to ensuring that all legislation passed serves the interests of big business.
So, the question remains, how do maintain a free press when that press is controlled by big business which is supported by government? Well before we answer that directly, let’s bring things home to the Overstrand. The most widely read “community” newspaper in the Overstrand is the Hermanus Times. And why is this? Well, it is largely because of the collusion between big business and the owners of the Hermanus Times, Media24, which is part of international conglomerate, Naspers. Just open an edition of the Hermanus Times and see the corporate advertising in the body of the paper as well as the voluminous supplements.
Add to this the multiple pages of municipal notices and you have a publication deep in the pockets of both big business and local government. So the question is, are you likely to get unbiased reporting from a publication almost totally beholden to these political and commercial interests? Well… I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
So, the ideal of a free press is contingent upon communities taking ownership of their own media. “Community” media that is owned by national or international organisations does NOT qualify as community media. From a community broadcasting perspective, the broadcasting Act defines community media as a service which:
(a) is fully controlled by a non-profit entity and carried on for non-profitable purposes;
(b) serves a particular community;
(c) encourages members of the community served by it or persons associated with or promoting the interests of such community to participate in the selection and provision of programmes to be broadcast in the course of such broadcasting service; and
(d) may be funded by donations, grants, sponsorships or advertising or membership fees, or by any combination of the aforementioned.
Therefore, for media to be truly free, it has to be free of political and commercial forces. The challenge is then to formulate a funding model for community media that is not contingent upon political or big business interests. Of course, this will require civil society to work together. However, the rewards could be significant.
Imagine the difference free media could make in reporting on local government corruption, predatory business practices, business collusion and price-fixing, tender irregularities, environmental and labour violations as well as political shenanigans.