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Books & arts

The complexities of media regulation

Fackson Banda

2006-08-31, Issue 267

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/books/36699

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Book Review: Article 19. 2006. Broadcasting pluralism and diversity: training manual for African regulators. London: Article 19. 112 pp. ISBN: 1-902598-82-2.

The 1990s saw the unfolding of the process of liberalisation, a facet of economic globalisation, across sub-Saharan Africa. This process had significant, albeit differing, implications for the broadcasting landscape. For one thing, there was an emergence of commercial and community broadcasting projects, posing a challenge to the hitherto monolithic broadcasting systems extant in most countries. For another, the process of technological convergence was tugging at telecommunications and broadcasting policy-makers, presenting them with new problems and possibilities. Underpinning all these developments was the value of democracy and democratisation.

Which is why the manual by Article 19, under the banner of the Global Campaign for Free Expression, is a propitious contribution to the escalating debates about media regulation and its desirability for the transitional democracies of Africa.

Chapter 1 explores the principles underpinning broadcast media regulation, not least freedom of expression, freedom of information, diversity and pluralism, media access and editorial independence. It also ratchets up the regulatory challenges posed by digitalisation and convergence, arguing that this presents opportunities for expanding the broadcasting-communicative space. Chapter 2 analyses the structure and functionality of broadcasting regulatory bodies. It emphasises the importance of independent and accountable regulators, endowed with the necessary powers and funds to operate effectively. Chapter 3 discusses regulatory aspects relating to the licensing of broadcasters: the necessity of a licence; eligibility for a licence; the three-tier broadcasting licensing system; the licensing process itself; and the licence conditions that must apply.

Chapter 4 isolates the regulation of content for specific discussion, giving the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) as a useful model in this regard. Lastly, chapter 5 examines the nature of complaints and sanctions meted out by regulatory agencies, noting that these must generally be proportionate to the ‘offence’ committed (p. 80). The rest of the manual is devoted to ‘further resources’, appendices and ‘notes for trainers’ (pp. 93-112).

The manual is a decidedly easy read -- this is its first striking feature, as soon as you start flipping through the pages. It is a step-by-step training resource. Apart from being a simplified read, the manual is didactic. This is evident in three devices used to engage the reader. There are three types of box, each focusing on one of the following: ‘brainstorm’; ‘discussion point’ and ‘revision point.’ These serve as participatory tools, engaging the reader in deeper and more critical reflection on the subject. It is this simplicity of argumentation and exposition that makes this training manual stand out from most of the other written pierces of discourse on broadcast media regulation.

This very simplicity is also its major weakness. Admittedly, this is not an academic treatise to bother about ‘theorising’ broadcasting regulation. By definition, a manual is essentially instructional. But the ‘instructions’ therein are informed by some ‘theoretical’ principles evolved over time. Which is why one is at liberty to ‘theoretically’ interrogate some of the assumptions implicit in the manual, such as, for example, the apparent dislocation of the regulators from their social and political structures. Media regulation is a heavily politicised activity. It is not surprising that Horwitz postulates six theories – ‘public interest’, ‘regulatory failure’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘economic capture-conspiracy’, ‘organisational’ and ‘capitalist state’ theories -- to explain the dynamics of media regulation (Horwitz, RB. 1997. Theories of media regulation, in The political economy of the media edited by P. Golding & G. Murdock. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).

Examples abound in which some, or all, of these theories are applicable. Only recently the South African minister of communications attempted to introduce an amendment to the ICASA Act 2000 that would make the state have a stronger say in the appointment of councillors of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). Had this motion become law, the regulatory authority would have been ‘captured’ by the state machinery. Furthermore, human agency suggests that regulatory bureaucrats are susceptible to even subtler controls than those alluded to by the manual. Of course, we need not belabour the fact that the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) has resulted in a heavily regulated media regime. In such a situation, broadcasting ‘deregulation’ would be preferable to ‘regulation’. But, for understandable reasons, it is beyond the scope of this manual to delve into the political contextualisation of media regulation in Africa.

Apart from this substantive observation, the other problematic aspects of the manual are editorial. Firstly, many of the details in the map on page 18 are blurred. The explanatory key is completely illegible. Secondly, page 69 has one glaring conceptual error. In trying to explain the ‘quantitative’ definition of ‘local content’, the author confuses it with the ‘qualitative’ aspect of local content requirements. Thirdly, here and there, one notices some typographical errors (for examples of this, see pages 29, 42 and 54).

These shortcomings do not, in any way, derogate from the integrity of the manual as a resource worth reading by all those who would understand the complexities of media regulation.

* Professor Fackson Banda is the SABMiller Chair of Media & Democracy,
School of Journalism & Media Studies, Rhodes University.

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at www.pambazuka.org

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