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The easy way (only way) towards media diversity

The ANC National Policy Conference is on the go in Midrand, between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and one of the issues on the agenda is "media diversity", or what one should really understand as "the lack of media diversity". Or, still closer to the truth, the "overly" white ownership of the printed media, in particular newspapers.

The SA government (read: ANC) has de facto control over television, radio and the internet in SA. So, there's no need for the ANC to debate "media diversity" in these areas - what they have there, is what they created themselves.

So, the debate will be about the overly concentrated (my words, not necessarily my opinion) ownership of the country's newspapers in a few (white) hands.

Before I go further, just a quick side-observation, if one can call it that. This thing about media diversity has been a debating point ever since the new SA was born in 1994 (or even before that time). I find it strange that the ANC should be so concerned about newspaper ownership, in a country where about half the people can't read (if not half of the population, then definitely half of the ANC supporters and voting base). In a country like SA control over the mass media radio and TV should suffice. Or, is there a more, not-so-noble motivating force behind this debate? Such as, that the ANC really does not like all the criticism thrown at it by the nation's press on a daily basis...in other words, that press freedom is not REALLY their thing.

Be that as it may, the issue is still with us 13 years into the new, democratic SA and the issue will be debated again this week. My guess is, this issue will not go away until something is done. And this brings us to the reason for my article, namely if something has to be done, then what?

I want to answer that question, by saying first what should NOT be done. That is, namely, that the temptation to start a new daily newspaper part-owned, or wholly-owned by the government (or one of its institutions, like the Industrial Development Corporation), should be resisted at all costs. The list of reasons why, is so long, I can't include all here.

A few are: To establish a newspaper is expensive (hellish expensive); printed newspapers are a dying breed (notwithstanding what the world's experts recently said at the world conference of newspapers in Cape Town!); quality journalists don't and won't work for a state organ, so there will be an on-going struggle to get quality journalism - not to talk about the struggle for credibility (same illnesses which have plaqued the SABC over many years).

So, if a new newspaper is not the answer, then what is? The answer is: the internet.

Ha-ha, I hear you chuckle. In a country half-full of illiterates, where half of that half struggles to find its daily bread you want to make the computer the mass medium for conveying news....dream on.

Exactly, the internet.

And again the list of reasons speaking for the internet is to long to jot all down now. But, try this one: SA has one of the most "cell-phone-linked" populations in Africa (and the world) and one of the least "internet-linked" populations in the world.

Why is that? Today's cell phones need almost as much "technical savvy" to use as the average laptop...and over time the cell phone can cost a bundle!

No, the "unconnectedness" of the population has a different explanation, namely the SA government. Yes, the population is highly "cell phone active", since the cell industry is (and has always been) a private industry. And a mere 6% of the population is "net-linked", because the internet is dominated and regulated by the state, via the (until recently) state monopoly called Telkom.

With its prices, lack of investment, policies and bad service Telkom has inhibited the normal unfolding of the internet in SA over many years.

In short, the SA population doesn't use the internet a lot, because it's still a luxury medium, a rich man's medium, the white man's medium.

Recently prices have started to fall, and a measure of competition has entered into the market for internet connections, but SA is still far behind the rest of the world. (In Germany more than 50% of the population is broadband-connected, and 80% of younger people have DSL in their homes - numbers which are projected to rise further in the next years.)

SA has a lot of catching up to do!

So, to keep it short and to the point: The best thing government can do to solve the "lack of diversity" in the media sector is to bring the world's most democratic medium, namely the internet to the people. Make it cheap, make it fast, make it convenient, make it effective. And you'll see a boom on the internet front of proportions you thought were not possible.

Declare it a goal of government to push connectivity up from 6% of the population today to 30% in 2010 and 40% in 2012. And then implement the policy steps to make this happen. Be aggressive.

And you'll reap a lot of (unintended, but positive) side-effects from the project for the community as a whole. Such as increases in labour productivity and improvements in the literacy percentage in the population, to name just two.

And, with the internet everywhere, the government can use it to reach voters with the information it wants them to get hold of - good or bad, that's not the issue now.

Already today I can subscribe (for free) to online audio newspapers...newspapers which are read to me upon the click of a button. Now, what can be more suitable to the South African situation?

And, at a fraction of the cost of building a national, daily newspaper. And, with good chances of being profitable. In fact, much better chances than a new printed product - even if government dished out 8 million of the very low-priced laptops produced in Germany today for the children's market (it's got a plastic case, so children can drop it, throw it, throw up on it and play with it in the bath) to 8 million households with electricity.

And, when your medium is online, you're in the growth sector. In print, you're in the declining sector.

I can go on listing reasons until tomorrow why the SA government should declare it a national goal to "undo" the damage it had done to SA in the last 10 years by keeping the diversity-enhancing internet sector from following its normal, natural growth path....

After all, nothing is more democratic than the internet and the tools it has spawned to date (particularly Web 2.0-type websites, where the reader inputs his own information) and will still spawn in future.

So, let the debate begin.....
28.6.07 13:41


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