By: Sthabiso Mdledle
Community media remains one of the forces that is entrusted with the task of keeping communities intact and engaged on many different aspects of life, due to its nature and mandate, as stipulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act (IBA 153 0f 1993). However, for the past few years there have been concerns surrounding the operation of community media, with the questions on its independence and mandate being raised.
In a country where mainstream media has been scrutinised and heavily criticised over the years, it is fair to arrive at the conclusion that there is no better time to ponder on a very necessary exploration of community media; which continues to also be under scrutiny for many reasons. Contrary to mainstream media, politics seem to play a huge role in the functioning of community media rendering it null to its course and mandate.
Existence of community media sector dates back to 1993 with legislation enacted through the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act, and has since emerged in South Africa over the few years. With all the work that has been done to promote and sustain community media as a tool to diversify media and growth of the community media sector, it is well notable that there remains a scourge of lack of sustainability.
Meanwhile this tool is there to bring communities together by providing platforms for community members and delivering content relating to communities, conflict of interest has also proved to be a conspicuous obstacle. The role of community media is to promote and encourage active citizenship in all aspects of life, including civil and political participatory. In this, it should be able to maintain its momentum with regard to active citizenship and positive engagement pertaining to quality education through quality content.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed a lack of credibility and accountability within community media, where instead of having community media outlets such as newspapers, radio and TV stations promoting social development and democracy, it merely became a tool of generating certain agendas driven by certain elites.
While it is worth noticing that the sector is faced with multiple challenges, it is fair to pay a closer attention to the persisting issue of the sector’s lack of access to resources such as funding; which is the vehicle of a successful, fully functional and sustainable sector. However, this then requires a critical exploration due to the conflict of interest it often possesses.
The revenue that community media generates is through advertising, with which the South African government remains the largest advertiser. So, since the government is the main contributor towards community media funding, the question that we need to ask ourselves is how can the sector continue its mandate while remaining independent? What is the possibility of community media be critical of the government and holding it accountable without the fear of being prejudiced? These are all the questions we need to pay special attention to if we are serious about tackling issues affecting community media sector and deepening its independent and growth.
In a quest to grow an independent and engaging community media that thrives on promoting democracy and development, the control should be given to community members, who should be the spectators and commentators of their own communities. Communities are under watch of community members who should then benefit from the control of community media outlets present in their communities. But this hasn’t been the case for many community newspapers and radio stations. The content dished out thrives on propaganda used as a driving force for political agendas, where you find political elites exploiting the space to their own benefit.
We have young people in communities doing a stellar job in activism and community upliftment’s, people who should be in control of community media spaces to drive change through social and political narratives that are at the interest of their communities but no; they are often side-lined due to their ability of speaking truth to power. This is the reason why some community media outlets thrive on bias and mediocre content.
For community media to thrive and grow as an independent vehicle for development and democracy, the government will have to revisit its support towards the sector, including funding which will ensure better access to resources, to help them acquire basic quality service, including training and support for journalists.
It is in this regard that the Democracy Development Programme (DDP) be holding a media summit aimed at enhancing and seeking long-term solutions for the currently problem stricken sector.