10 March 2014

South Africa: The ICT Policy Review - Where Is the Boldness of Vision?

analysis

Sick and tired of too much foreign content on television and too much political meddling in the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)? Fed up with some of the most exploitative communications costs in the world? Well, now is your opportunity to say and do something out these problems, in theory at least.

The Department of Communications is reviewing all policies impacting on the Information and Communications Technology (ICT), and Parliament intends to review the laws as well.

This review includes both broadcasting and telecommunications. It aims to promote the convergence of the two sectors, made possible by digitisation, to achieve a society where knowledge and information occupies a central place in peoples' lives.

The Green Paper follows on from a Framing Paper, which canvassed public opinion on the underlying principles that should underpin the ICT sector.

This paper was a breath of fresh air. For the first time in a long time, people were encouraged to stop whinging about the state of the sector, and focus on what kind of sector they wanted. The paper reaffirmed the importance of constitutional rights like freedom of expression and privacy as foundational principles for the sector.

The policy review needs to grapple with some fundamental issues. South Africa has a fragmented media system, with few common viewing and listening spaces where the really important national debates can be held. The middle classes who can afford subscription television have fled the SABC, as convergence is creating even more media options for them.

DTSV has been extremely savvy about expanding its reach ahead of the digital terrestrial television (DTT) transition. It has reduced the price of its basic offerings, mopping up sections of the working class that can afford subscriptions. It's likely that once the DTT transition is complete, only the poorest South Africans will be serviced by free to air television, and more specifically by the SABC.

DTT is meant to open up the television environment, offering greater diversity of content, and the Green Paper punts its potential heavily. However, owing to loss of advertising income due to a combination of media fragmentation and loss of public trust, there is a real risk that the SABC is likely to provide multichannel offerings that rely heavily on stale content and repeats. If this happens, then DTT will become, effectively, 'poor man's television'.

At a deeper level, in spite of the fact that online media are becoming increasingly important for more South Africans, media options are not expanding as rapidly for the poor, if they are expanding at all. Media owners are cherry picking the most profitable markets, which risks creating a two tier system of 'information-haves' and 'information have-nots', and balkanising public debate.

Convergence may well intensify this trend, creating a veritable Tower of Babel where South Africans withdraw from conversing with one another, and gradually become unintelligible to one another. If this happens, then the country's already fragile, superficial national unity will become even more difficult to achieve.

South Africa is not the only country conducting an ICT policy review. Internationally, media owners are lobbying governments and regulators to relax regulatory requirements, and shift from an onerous system of licencing to a lighter touch process of authorisation.

Some are even arguing that regulation is obsolete as the market is able to provide an abundance of media on its own. Others point to the difficulty of identifying which services should be licenced to argue that regulation has lost its rationale; that it's underlying concepts are broken.

Needless to say, these arguments are self-serving as little or no regulation will allow these companies to do as they please. Yet, regulation is as needed in the analogue environment as it was in the digital environment, if not more so.

Media consolidation remains a huge problem: fewer media owners are providing more content over different platforms, which doesn't automatically translate into diversity.

There is no reason to believe that the existence of an abundance of media actually means that there is a diversity of voices. On the contrary, the same voices can simply land up dominating more media platforms, a case in point being online news.

The most accessed South African news sites are published largely by the already-dominant providers of news and entertainment, especially News24, which calls into question whether the introduction of online and mobile sites has, in fact, increased diversity. This trend is not peculiar to South Africa.

According to media academics Tim Dwyer and Fiona Martin, the major media groups in Australia argued for deregulation during the country's various ICT policy and regulatory reviews.

The country's two dominant media groups, Fairfax Media and News Corporation, expanded their news channels, but also intensified news sharing. This led to them re-using the same story across co-owned publications on the same platform, re-versioning stories for co-owned publications, re-purposing content for different platforms, and syndication content to aggregator services.

However, it must be acknowledged that in capitalist societies, communications (and other) regulators are generally biased towards commercial interests.

In fact, instead of protecting the public interest against commercial interests, they may well do the opposite and protect commercial interests against the public interests. A public interest-driven regulator has to be struggled for, and having a regulator is certainly preferable to having no regulator.

The ICT policy review needs to face these challenges head on. Will it be up to the task? While it is inappropriate to judge the process prematurely, there are worrying signs that market-driven solutions to problems facing the communications sector are likely to dominate the process.

This is in spite of the fact that the document claims to be wary of a market-driven approach and embraces the developmental state. The review's uncritical embrace of the National Development Plan and information/ knowledge society discourse - as well as its overriding faith in competitive capitalism to solve pressing problems in the sector - point to this bias.

The Paper is also meant to contain a diagnostic element, identifying what has worked in the communications sector, and what hasn't, and why. But instead, it is very weak on diagnosis.

While it acknowledges the weaknesses of the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, it fails to address the ways in which the Department of Communications's own policies have disempowered the regulator and the SABC, and allowed large players like Naspers to become even more dominant.

This disempowerment has created a communications sector that is susceptible to both political control and rampant profiteering by entrenched players. Internationally the trend has been for these players to use the excuse of convergence and the window of ICT policy reviews to weaken public interest regulation even more. Addressing these problems in South Africa will require a vision that is much bolder than the one that appears to be emerging.

Editor's Note: the Department of Communications has extended the deadline for comment on the ICT Green paper to 24th March 2014. The paper can be accessed here.

Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.

Read more articles by Jane Duncan.

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