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Date: Fri, 13 Oct 1995 03:56:29 -0200
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Subject: Mayibuye - October 1995

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From miscommunication to mass communication

By Karen Thorne, Mayibuye, Vol. 6, no. 6
October 1995

At a time of great change in South Africa's broadcasting environment, community television is coming into its own as the RDP of the broadcasting sector, writes Karen Thorne.

After years of resistance struggle and a subsequent focus in public policy work, community media activists are having to come to grips with the real and far more challenging realities of working within a developmental context in the building of community access television in South Africa. This challenge has been taken on by the newly-formed Open Window Network (OWN), a national network of 22 community based video and television initiatives as well as service organisations working in training, production, distribution and exhibition. OWN is advancing a national programme aimed at promoting community access to television in South Africa.

The long term goal of OWN is to develop a community television sector that is viable, sustainable and meets the needs of communities in the context of development and democratisation. The concept of community television is simply a practical delivery mechanism of access to training, production, distribution, exhibition and broadcast facilities to historically disadvantaged communities in South Africa. Community television is the ideal tool for development in relation to the broadcast sector because:

  • Community television is by its nature a potentially self sustaining medium. The IBA Act allows community broadcasters to generate income in the form of advertising. Community television projects are viable development projects in that they can generate income from the sale of programmes, services and advertising space.
  • Community television fits in directly with the government's Reconstruction and Development Programme in that it is development that is community driven and controlled. Community broadcasting goes a step further than public broadcasting in that it recognises the central role of communities, at the local level, in owning and controlling the broadcast medium, unlocking resources, building partnerships between role players, effective delivery mechanisms and properly assessing diverse needs within communities. Community television is the RDP of the broadcasting sector.

Redressing the imbalance of the legacy of apartheid has to be the first consideration in any movement toward the development of community television in South Africa. This will include human resource development for the broadcasting sector as a whole in a way that promotes an upward flow from communities to the public and private sector.

Community television stands to play an important role in a broader developmental sense. The government's RDP recognises that information and an informed population will be vital to the success of the programme. Equally important will be people's ability to engage in dialogue about community approaches and solutions to the fundamental challenges still confronting the majority of South Africans. If people don't have effective means to express their needs, they won't have effective control over the development process. In a largely illiterate society, broadcasting has a critical role to play in the development of a participatory democracy.

There is no guarantee that access to video and broadcast technologies contributes to a participatory democracy. If community television is to play this role effectively then we need to take the notion of access a step further. South Africa's unique history has given South Africans a deep sense of participation and ownership of the political process. Communities, or at least sectors of communities, are well organised and coherent.

The social foundations for the success of community television have been sown. Community television can contribute to this by enhancing communities' ability to communicate with itself and the world.

Communities as well as NGOs and CBOs need to be trained as effective communicators. The focus should be on the message and not simply on access to the medium. Community participation must go beyond that of access or community control.

In order to make this possible, community television needs to be developed from the bottom up over a period of time through distinct developmental phases. The first priority is to build production capacity in historically marginalised communities. This will be achieved through the coordination of a national training programme involving numerous training institutions around the country and the building of Video Access Centres (VACs) in areas where no such production capacity exists.

Training will be integrated with, and partially financed by, production. OWN intends to leverage government funds through the offering of services to the South African Communications Service, as well as seeking contract work from the NGO sector. OWN is also building a strong relationship of cooperation with the national public broadcaster where a mechanism for the showing or commissioning of community originated programming is presently being negotiated.

When VACs build up sufficient capacity they will apply to the Independent Broadcasting Authority for a community television licence to broadcast. The network is presently debating various signal distribution options, looking into ways in which community television stations can share programming material over the long term. Serious attention is being given to the consortium model. This model has already been through two test transmissions in the Durban and Cape Town metropolitan areas. Satellites are also being looked into as a future means of redistributing community programming nationally.

The objectives of the Open Window Network in community broadcasting complement the efforts of community radio and print. Hence the organisation works in close collaboration with fraternal organisations in these related spheres through formal links and structures aimed at the establishment of the National Community Media Forum. Together we are advancing a vision of community broadcasting during a time in which the future telecommunications policy and regulatory environment is being shaped. Now is the time to enshrine the notion of community access and participation within the new South Africa by linking it permanently to information and communication technologies.

Karen Thorne is General Secretary of the Open Window Network, PO Box 32022, Braamfontein, 2107. Tel: (011) 403-2750

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