The airwaves are a limited electromagnetic spectrum that is needed to carry radio, TV, cellphone and other broadcast signals. Like the original theft of our land, this new theft is made legal by the government, which is entrusted with regulating the airwaves.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) is preparing regulations that will govern how the airwaves are used once broadcasters move from the current analogue to digital broadcasting. The move should be welcomed, because it will allow many more TV channels to be transmitted using the same frequency. The process of deciding who controls the new channels will define the kind of television we receive for decades to come.
Under apartheid, the government controlled television largely through the state broadcaster, the SABC.
The 1994 negotiated settlement included a commitment to transform the SABC into a public broadcaster not directly controlled by the government and to introduce commercial and non-profit community broadcasting. These three tiers of broadcasting were intended to ensure the greater diversity of media and access to the airwaves for working-class communities.
But 18 years of neoliberalism have starved public and community broadcasters of public funding and they were left to compete for advertising revenue. Because of this commercialisation, broadcasters pandered to the values and prejudices of advertisers and the interests of the more wealthy sections of the audiences, which advertisers desired.
But it now seems Icasa has all but abandoned the principle of three tiers of community, public and commercial broadcasting. The current draft Icasa regulation proposes giving 71% of the TV airwaves for commercial use, 3% for community use and 23% for public use.
At the direction of the minister of communications, the new draft regulations set aside 30% of the airwaves for "new commercial interests".
This should be welcomed because it will introduce some competition and limit the monopolies of incumbents eTV (free to air) and DStv (subscription). But if non-commercial public and community TV is not defended, commercial competition may lead to a larger number of channels that deliver homogenised content (more of the same sitcoms, sport and soap operas) and have little space for alternative information and perspectives.
The Right2Know campaign and others are demanding that at least half of our TV stations be put under public and community control. We are also calling for increased public funding of the SABC and community broadcasters so that they have resources to serve the information needs of the majority.
Threat to media diversity
Dominant players like Naspers, on the other hand, have a very different agenda. The apartheid government created the media company that today controls Media24 (which has nearly 40% of total newspaper circulation) and DStv, and has shares in FaceBook and more. Naspers is a great threat to media diversity and hence media freedom in the fullest sense.
If Icasa's current division of the airwaves remains unchanged, Naspers-DStv will be a primary beneficiary of the commercialisation.
But the company does not seem content with that. A critical issue with the introduction of digital television is the roll-out of set-top boxes that will enable every household to receive the new broadcasts. Naspers-DStv are deploying a number of delaying and marketing tactics to ensure that, before the government rolls out set-top boxes, as many households as possible will already have a DStv decoder and thus may see little value in the expense and hassle of another decoder that will carry public and community content as well as the content of their competitors.
For the poor and working classes with limited newspaper and internet access, TV is a critical source of information and culture. We must try to prevent the theft of the airwaves and ensure that the majority's right to receive and impart information is advanced and people are not trapped in a commercialised world in which there are many TV channels with little more than numbing pulp on any of them.
Community television will have a critical role to play in delivering meaningful diversity.
Mark Weinberg serves in the national working group of the Right2Know campaign and on the board of Cape Town Community Television