From the 13th to the 15th of May, our country hosted an Important International conference on Information Society and Development (ISAD), This gathering concluded, among other things that an Informed society is a vital condition for the effective functioning of government and modern political and economic systems.
It also correctly observed that the world is in the throes of a new and critically important technological revolution in the field of information and communication, The conference also pointed out that this revolution will forever change the way we live, work, play, organise our societies and ultimately define ourselves.
The Conference confirmed that the future lies with information and Informed societies.
This has a very direct bearing on the question of governance.
There is no doubt that the citizenry can only play a meaningful role in governance if it has access to Information, if it is fully conversant with the aims and objectives of its elected representatives.
It is only an Informed population that would be able to curb the excesses of government where these occur.
Indeed peace and stability, and the very essence of the democracy that we hold so dear today, can only be protected when the people are Informed and not deliberately kept in the dark.
This has placed a heavy responsibility on all those governments that count themselves among the democracies of the world today.
That responsibility is even more so on our government because we are the new comers to the world of democracy.
The burden upon our new democracy is even heavier because we have emerged out of an era in which governance thrived on secrecy and the user of means of communication not to Inform but to manipulate and intimidate. We are therefore still engaged fn that struggle to break with that past.
From its very inception the Government of National Unity committed itself to transparency, accountability and the building of a people centred society.
If we start from the premise that it is only an informed citizenry that can protect and preserve this democracy, we must at the same time, be prepared to do some critical introspection.
We must ask ourselves some fundamental questions. Does this democratic government need to communicate and inform its citizens? Naturally the answer to this question is YES. Has this government, in the short time that it has been in existence, been able to harness the necessary human and material resources to fulfil this role?
Has it been able to build the necessary capacity, to create the infrastructure that is so fundamental to our set aims and objectives?
We have said earlier that a technological revolution is taking place right in front of our very eyes. Where have we positioned ourselves with respect to this revolution so that we are able to fake maximum advantage of the benefits of this revolutionary process?
Unfortunately we must admit that we have been found lacking in all the questions posed above. But this has not been because of a lack of will on our part. It is because of the objective realities that confronted us when our democracy was born. In a sense, we have to start from scratch.
Last year, the matter was correctly raised in this House that one of the issues that needed to be addressed was a comprehensive national information and communication policy to provide the necessary framework for effective government communication.
As a result of this call, a Conference of Government Communicators was held. These were joined by other people working in the commercial media to ensure that we accessed the opinions and expertise of these professionals.
Having assessed the scale of the challenge, that Conference recommended that a Task Team on Government Communication be established to prepare a comprehensive report on the issue of information and communication.
As the House knows, this team was established and has been hard at work. It expects to complete its investigations by September, with the report becoming available perhaps a month later.
We would here like to cite its terms of reference to indicate the scope of the important work in which this ten-person task team is engaged.
The Team has been mandated to review:
- existing government communication policy, structures, facilities and functions at a national, provincial and local level;
- existing government budgets with special reference to personnel, operations and equipment; relationships between government communication structures and non-governmental information providers;
- government communication training and capacity building with special emphasis on affirmative action; and, ownership and control of the South African media and how this affects government communication.
The Task Team is also required to look at international experience in these areas and will, to conclude its task, make recommendations on new government communication policy, functions, structures, personnel and the budget, affecting international, national, provincial and local communication.
In the process of its review, the Task Team will find that the South African Communication Service is funded at an abysmally low level. Its allocation now stands at 0,036 per cent of the national budget.
It will also find that SACS lacks a national vehicle to disseminate information. The limited audio-visual materials and publications produced by SACS are obviously not adequate to meet our national needs.
They do not have sufficient penetration of the intended audiences, especially fn the rural areas where information is needed most.
The departmentalised and fragmented information dissemination system also does not appear to improve the situation. Without seeking to prejudge the outcome of the work of the Task Team, it would seem clear that a well-staffed, properly co-ordinated and cost effective central structure would help to minimise the current serious and wasteful duplication of resources.
Of course, the central and decisive issue is that in reality the government communicator has no capacity for mass communication. It has to rely on whatever is available in the country in terms of vehicles for mass communication.
Fully aware of all the sensitivities surrounding this issue, we must nevertheless make the point that one such vehicle is the public broadcaster.
A recent survey conducted in the Northern Province by SACS indicates that over 90 per cent of the population In the province want to receive information and communication directly from the Government. This is in addition to other sources of information such as the privately owned media and the SABC.
I am sure that a similar survey conducted in the other provinces would also indicate the desire of the people to hear directly from government.
This emphasises the great need for government to open up channels of communication between Itself and the people.
In that context let us return to the question of this role of the public broadcaster and cite the Triple Inquiry Report of the
Independent Broadcasting Authority tabled in this parliament last year. This is what the IBA says:
” Access to information is central to any democracy as a country can only be regarded as truly democratic when its citizens have a say that goes beyond the vote at national or local level. As a result of apartheid, South Africa will take some time before this ideal of democracy is fully realised.
Because of the high levels of illiteracy and disparities in development between rural and urban areas, as well as a communications infrastructure that Is essentially underdeveloped, information dissemination is one of the greatest challenges that broadcasting faces.
The question of giving the public relevant and timely information was highlighted as crucial during the hearings, particularly by sections of the public who have limited access to the media. Editorial judgement of the public broadcaster, as well as accuracy in reporting were issues that were raised as needing particular attention.”
The IBA concludes as follows:
”The Authority recognises the need for the public to be informed about the activities of the government. The Authority believes that this is in the domain of the public broadcaster.”
I believe that the IBA is correct to conclude thus. It points the way towards meeting the popular need for direct government communication indicated in the Northern Province survey to which we have referred.
Necessarily matters concerning editorial independence would have to be addressed, but if we are serious about responding to the needs of the people and building a genuinely participatory democracy, we cannot run away from the need to ensure that the public broadcaster carries out its responsibilities as defined by the IBA.
In this context, let us also raise another larger and thorny question. This relates to the representation of different points of view in the media in general.
Historically, especially the African majority has been denied access to the mass media. Where it has established its own newspapers since the last century, many of these have failed to survive as independent entities because of the inability of this community, which is largely poor, to dispose of sufficient incomes to sustain a substantial press.
Where the political representatives of this community have deliberately sought to fill this void by issuing various publications, these became targets of repressive action with one journal after another being banned and closed down.
During the 1980s more effort was made to address this question through the establishment of what was described as the alternative media, I believe that every fair-minded person recognised the fact that at that point, the commercial media and certainly the public broadcaster did not represent the view of the majority which apartheid society also excluded in many other ways.
In established democracies the general rule is that the major political tendencies are represented in the mass media to one extent or another. Consequently, newspapers openly support one political party another as part of their editorial policy.
Clearly, there is nothing wrong with this. It reflects the normal evolution of societies and is not determined by government degree. To the extent that it is also part of our own reality, it is again a matter that cannot and will not be addressed by government edict.
Because of the particular evolution of our own society, we find the remarkable situation that, because of the history we have already indicated, the political tendency represented by the liberation movement is by and large not represented in our media.
The problem gets more compounded when that tendency becomes the government of the day because the lack of representation is then extended to the government.
It is for this reason that the issue of media diversity becomes very important because, quite frankly, the situation cannot be considered normal where a majority political school of thought finds no way of taking its place alongside other schools of thought in the mass media.
The issue is not to deny those who are well represented in the media the right and the possibility so to be represented. What is required is that we should work towards creating a more equitable situation such that all significant schools of thought, and not just some, are able to reach the people in their millions.
I believe that the public broadcaster has a role to play in this regard as well – not to act as the propaganda organ of any school of thought, but to ensure that it conveys news and views from all schools of thought in an equitable manner.
I also believe that in the disposal of some of its broadcasting assets to private owners, the public broadcaster and the IBA will also have to take example from some of the actions of existing business which is trying to diversity ownership to benefit those who have been disadvantaged, precisely to correct the gross imbalance in terms of access to the means for mass communication which we have inherited from the past.
Here we must address not merely the question of ownership, but the critical question of ensuring that as a true democracy no significant section of the population is denied the possibility to communicate.
I am aware of the fact that many of the issues we have raised are contentious. The situation is worsened by fears that arise from past government practices which result in relatively high levels of mistrust.
But I believe that the House should debate these issues with as little rancour as possible as part of the effort of building a people centred society and entrenching a genuine democracy.
The House will also have the possibility to return these questions once the Task Team has completed its report which we will request to table before the House.
But I believe that non among us would, in any case question the need to ensure that the Government communicates with the electorate effectively and creates the situation in which the public is also able to intervene in the process of governance in as effective manner as possible.
In this regard, I would like to express my appreciation for the work done by the Portfolio Committee as well the leadership and staff of the South African Communication Service.
I am certain that they and this House as a whole will measure up to the new challenges we will have to address in the aftermath of the publication of the report of the Task Team on Government Information and Communication, including the strengthening of SACS as a central, restructured and adequately financed organ of public information.