Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is deeply distressed by reports this week that Sentech has switched off the signal of at least 2 community radio stations and has initiated the phased switch-off process for a further 15 other community broadcasters because their payment was in arrears.

Sentech is the state owned enterprise that serves as the signal provider and carries the signals of all licenced broadcasters across the country, both radio and television.

It is clear that the issue is not a new one. While we acknowledge that lack of payment is a critical concern, in this instance it also means silencing community media with the direct impact of marginalising the most marginalised communities even further.

It is a tragedy that we have to reach crisis point before many of the central actors appear to sit up and take notice. The situation is all the more embarrassing for the key players given that non-payment is not a new challenge, and the amounts running into several millions are significant for community broadcasters. We note further that issues of sustainability have also been raised time and again by community broadcasters, and one of the key prohibitive costs for them has been the Sentech costs. If there is to a positive outcome from the current crisis, we hope it will involve key stakeholders putting concrete plans into place that not only ensure that these impacted media are broadcasting again, but that longer term sustainable solutions are found.

The importance to media diversity and of giving a voice to marginalised communities is too important to allow a problem to fester into a crisis before it gets resolved. It is perhaps unfair to blame the Department of Communications as there have been 4 ministers in 12 months. It would also be easy to blame the Media Development and Diversity Agency or the National Community Radio Forum but both these institutions have also been in crisis over the past year.

The reported comment from the Minister of Communications that government should allocate 30% of its advertising spend on community media is an option, but it is also one that has been stated on previous occasions by previous Ministers, with little action.

Aside from the real risk to peoples’ livelihoods, and of undermining media freedom and diversity, the threats are also symptomatic of a communications sector that has been plagued by policy turmoil and instability. It is critical that as our digital reality develops that we address uncertainty and volatility in the Communications sector, or we will see similar crises repeated in the future.

For more information, please call: William Bird 011 788 1278