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Activists say ICASA’s shutting down of community radio stations are an attempt to “violate democratic values”

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Africa’s oldest community radio station project has called on government to uphold its commitments to the community radio sector, as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) announced plans to shut down dozens of local stations

On Friday, 18 October 2019, the National Community Radio Forum (NCRF) held an emergency meeting of its Central Executive Committee in Durban, in response to ICASA’s plans. There, the CEC criticized government over its failure to protect media freedom, diversity and access to information.

The CEC also noted that closing community stations will decrease the chances of young South Africans of obtaining jobs- in a country where the youth unemployment rate stands at 56.4 %- higher than it’s ever been before.

ICASA has meanwhile, slammed claims that it is acting irregularly or with ill intent. The regulator justified the crackdown on radio stations by saying that it is has a mandate to ensure compliance. In an article on mybroadband, ICASA CEO Willington Ngwepe, is quoted to have said the regulator will ‘neither promote nor allow illegal broadcasting and illegal use of the radio frequency spectrum’:

“ICASA’s mandate is, among others; to ensure compliance by all licensees with all applicable laws, regulations as well as licence terms and conditions.”

“In executing this mandate, ICASA has identified approximately 29 community radio stations (and not 43 as purported by the NCRF) who do not possess the required broadcasting licences to operate as community radio stations. It is prohibited (and therefore unlawful) for any person to provide a broadcasting service without a licence, making these 29 community stations “pirate” broadcasters which did not comply with the appropriate regulations.”

Speaking to VOC’s Breakfast Beat, Bush Radio 89.5fm’s Programme Manager, Adrian Louw, explained that “the mother of all community radio stations” will not take a back seat. He explained that Community Radio is essential to a developing country such as South Africa.

“The community media sector in SA plays an incredible vital role in media freedom and media expression. VOC, for example, deals with a lot of religious freedom highlighting the Muslim community.”

He explained that compliance has been an ongoing issue- especially since it comes at a financial cost.

“A lot of the issues relate to compliance. We sit with a kind of chicken-egg situation, where stations aren’t compliant and aren’t receiving enough funds so they can’t even get compliant. We’re dealing with tax issues, signal fees and many others.”

“The audiences aren’t aware of the amount of paperwork that a community radio station needs to go through…! Bush and VOC are in the urban areas, we have access to a lot of people and some of resources. What about the rural areas that has to go through mountains and mountains of paperwork to be compliant? Its literally a full-time job for a station to have someone like a compliance officer.”

This sentiment was a shared by Right to Know Communications Focus Organizer, Lazola Kati, who said that their organisation has a first-hand-account of community radio stations that cater to rural areas. Kati said volunteers perseverance despite economic pressure, is testament to their dedication to South Africa’s democratic rights.

“We have visited community radio stations in rural areas and some of them are all working on a volunteer basis. There is no print. There is no assistance. There is no explanation. All you have is a bunch of people that have a passion for realising their democratic value in the community radio sector.

“We believe that something like (this) is definitely a violation of democratic values. This is cutting out community voices. This is silencing like thousands of voices. Actually, it may sound like just an odd footage of what it could mean to radio stations, but it’s a thousand community voices that have real issues that have real opinions.”

Louw emphasised that despite the passion ‘to serve the people’; bills need to be paid. Given the harsh economic climate in South Africa, the program manager acknowledged the reduction of people willing to work “for free”.

“The community media sector has become an industry. That was never the idea. It wasn’t supposed to be a workplace. It was a place where people receive training, volunteer their free time. But it became an industry and we understand that because of South Africa’s economic situation.”

“We really need to look at how the model for funding for community media has to change- it’s not practical. Voice of the Cape and Bush radio, in particular, we are a breeding ground for young journalist who move to the mainstream media. We don’t receive compensation or support for that.”

Louw, Kati and CEC General Secretary, Thabang Pusoyabone, pointed to government’s failure to provide uphold its promise to spend at least 30% of its advertising budget to support community media.

NGO’s and grassroots campaigns have suggested tackling the top brass in the sector and getting them to pay attention. Even if that means “trying to get the door broken into in order to sit down with them and educate them.” According to Kati, the leadership responsible for funding is oblivious to the plight of community radio stations. Meeting with the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) has been unsuccessful.

According to both Louw and Kati, engagements with key figures have been fruitless.

 “We are very disappointed because earlier this year when we launched our lovely community radio campaign and these were the main concerns that we had foreseen and that we were trying to engage the minister in the office of the presidency and the head of the MDDA (on). Sadly, even when we had a meeting with the head of the MDDA, they kept on cancelling,” said Kati.

“We have been trying to get a meeting with the head of the MDDA because  we left our petition at the office of the presidency. It was referred to Mthembu’s office and the office then arranged a meeting. It’s being shifted from day to day,”

“We’ve engaged with the minister of the presidency Jackson Mthembu on a number of platforms and eh wasn’t even aware that community radio stations weren’t getting the promised 30% of spend from government- never received it,” added Louw.

“We aren’t laying the blame on any one governmental department. For us, it (requires) an holistic approach. If we are a country that encourages development and we consider ourselves a developing country, we can’t penalize stations that are now struggling without the necessary support- and just threaten to cut them off!” Louw exclaimed.

Pusoyabone noted that Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu, Minister of Department of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, Acting Chairperson of the Council of ICASA, Dr. Keabetswe Modimoeng and Chairperson of the MDDA board, Ndivhuho Norman Munzhelele are those who need to act.

Kati suggested that these key stakeholders need to familiarise themselves with the sector-thoroughly- and make determinations accordingly.

“That is a real issue- they don’t even know the complete number of community radio stations that exist. Some suggestions we made was that the council should also sit down and train communities. It should be an arts training, which should be a theory- a whole year of travelling South Africa. Training and assisting and understanding the issues that come into radio stations actually face. And these are the types of ideas that we spoke about and over the phone, but we haven’t been able to pin down the date we sit down and actually hold these bodies to account as to why community radio stations have become a target.”

Kati explained that these radio station bridge the gap and promote communication between radio and community members.

“Community forums should sit down and not only discuss community safety and education but also discuss community radio. Community radio stations in rural areas often exist in isolation and they also in competition with commercial radio stations whereby you at the community listening to the commercial radio station instead of a community radio station.  The community becomes integral in terms of advertising the community radio station- educating people on the importance of the community radio station and the historical importance and mainly how young people can actually get involved in this community radio station.”

“Government, through ICASA and MDDA, needs to really support the sector- taking a look at the funding model and how funds are distributed. There’s a lot of commercial interest, the advertising cake, in Cape Town in particular, is incredibly small. How can we have smaller stations competing with a station that has close to a million listeners? Then you have the SABC which can sell across the country. That is immediately unfair,”  added Louw.

Among the stations that could be closed are Zibonele FM, UCT Community Radio, The Rock FM, Radio Kaap se Punt and Franschhoek Community Radio.

The CEC’s Pusoyabone said the community radio sector and its supporters “should be mobilised” to stage a protest to persuade key figures to pay attention to their grievances. The committee resolved that the march will be held on Friday, 8 November 2019.

Meanwhile, Bush Radio is among those struggling to keep up with the future of their title as “mother of all radio stations” hanging in the balance. Louw explained that although it has always been challenging, what the institution stands for

“We literally stay afloat month to month, that’s always been Bush radio. For the past 25 years I’ve been involved, its really been a struggle. It’s (all) been (achieved) through hard work.”

“We can’t wait for a miracle for funding. So, what we’ve done is start out on crowd funding campaign. Because we are not going to be able to wait for a miracle solution from government, we have to ask the people, we can’t wait on NGO’s. We must lobby. We must raise these issues.

“Yes, we struggle daily and we’re also asking the poorest of the poor to support the station- which is really hard- because that’s who we service. These are challenging that the community media sector, as a whole, faces in South Africa.”

Louw added that the value of community radio is increasing in value.

“We hope that businesses would come on board and look at the strength of community radio and what it offers. Community radio now accounts for more than 25% of the listening audience of this country.  It’s a really strong tool! We service a niche. Community radio stations service a need in the community that is not being filled by commercial, jukebox radio and is not being fulfilled by the SABC. Communities have different interests and that’s what we offer.”

The stations past, future and present rely on its employees and, more importantly, it’s supporters.

“The young people at Bush Radio are truly amazing, they have passion. They understand the value of the station. Besides the amazing legacy of being the first community radio station; our history that is so strong that the new crop of young people is so dedicated because they want to improve themselves.”

“That is what Bush Radio offers. It’s a place for young people to learn the craft of broadcasting, learn media and then move forward from there.”

VOC


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