Voices from Below

May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day, when freedom of the media is reflected upon across the globe. It’s a day that has its origins in Southern Africa.

In our part of the world the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), an organisation of media owners, journalists, freedom of expression activists, media lawyers and media academics, will as usual launch its publication “So This is Democracy?” This publication details violations of freedom of the media in the region and the actions taken to protest and request corrective action from the violators. It is a veritable barometer of the extent to which Southern Africa is choosing the irreversible road towards a free media.

In South Africa, MISA and Wits University’s School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies will hold an event to commemorate the day with a focus on the role of community media in enhancing freedom of expression. Several organisations, including Icasa, the Media Development and Diversity Agency, AMARC (the umbrella organisation for community radio in Africa), the National Community Radio Forum and the Freedom of Expression Institute, will make presentations on community media and freedom of expression. There are several reasons for a focus on community media.

First, community media is often neglected in discussions and debates on media freedom. It is regularly forgotten that ultimately people experience democracy (or lack of it) in the communities in which they live. It is at this level that people need services: housing, schools, hospitals, electricity, running water, good roads, cultural and entertainment facilities, safety and security.

Big media do not cover these issues sufficiently, tending to invade the area when a crisis occurs and leaving soon after. But as any good audience research will tell you, people pay more attention to the media when it deals with issues that are close to them.

Second, community media (both commercial and non-commercial) is growing across Southern Africa, and in particular in South Africa. This is a trend that needs to be both celebrated and encouraged because it will strengthen grassroots democracy.

Again, what grassroots democracy does is bring government closer to the people, enabling them to enjoy greater levels of participation in the decisions that affect them. It also enables the people to take back the power that politicians have run away with to parliament, provincial legislatures and mayoral chambers. Community media democratises power by giving people a voice to speak truth to power and to speak among themselves about their own issues.

It is no coincidence that, in relative terms, South Africa’s new democracy is the deepest of all Southern African countries; largely because it has a network of community media that complements big media as well as fills gaps in the media landscape. It is also no coincidence that Zimbabwe, a country with no community media and very little private commercial media, is the region’s most despotic.

For marketers and advertisers, community media should be a natural – it provides niche audiences, greater choice and highly affordable rates. Further, from a self-interest point of view, advertisers and marketers may want to consider that community media is actually an excellent breeding ground for consumption of mainstream media. Support of community media is an investment in growing audiences and stimulating consumption.

So on World Press Freedom Day this year perhaps it would benefit us all to focus on the things that build a dense network of community media. It is, after all, one of the most valuable tools for democratisation and socio-economic development.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies at Wits University.

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