Community radio stations fight to stay on air

Icasa needs to be stopped from interdicting radio stations. We will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that government does well on its promises made to the community media sector.

South Africa’s communications regulatory body is on a drive to close down several community radio stations. It claims to be driven by efforts to ensure compliance in the sector and the affected stations are guilty of operating without the required licenses. From the onset, it should be clear that the National Community Radio Forum does not condone non-compliance. It was for this reason that we reached out to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa earlier this year to work with the sector to assist in getting some broadcasters compliant. It is for this reason that we are baffled. Why are strong-arm tactics being used? It’s a set-back for access and diversity in the media.

It is of even greater concern when – as the National Community Radio Forum – we began working with the affected stations only to realise that some did in fact comply and Icasa had been non-responsive. This is a pervasive issue with the regulator which hasn’t had stability with compliance officers nor is it known for having its affairs in order. Some of these stations such as Radio Zibonele in Cape Town have evidence of having applied and were equally perplexed by this move to shut down community radio stations.

Perhaps it is the lack of process which for us was the ultimate measure of overreach. Icasa’s own processes dictate that it should assist stations – where necessary – to remain compliant and in the event that a broadcaster remains oblivious to the authority’s directive, that it should ventilate these at Icasa’s Complaints and Compliance Committee (the CCC). None of this happened. Furthermore, our very own reading of the Communications Act shows that it makes provision for a broadcaster to make a late submission. It is for this reason that we strongly feel aggrieved that Icasa is not following its own regulations and it appears to be in violation of South African law.

It needs to be stressed however that this is the latest onslaught on the industry. Government previously committed to spending 30% of its ad spend with community media. This is not only logical as an investment in the industry but completely sensible because logically you would not advertise Expanded Public Works Programme job opportunities in a commercial mainstream newspaper, right?

These commitments along with the burdensome issue of signal distribution fees owed to Sentech were highlighted through successive years of lobbying, the latest of which was a community media engagement summit in 2018 and earlier in 2019. While it appears that the latest meeting with government appear to have shown renewed energy to deal with these issues, we fear that it may be short-lived and community broadcasters will once more be left to fend for themselves. This will be in between losing skills to commercial broadcasters, increasing burdensome debt and facing a regulator that wants to shut down community radio stations.

Icasa needs to be stopped from interdicting stations and attaching their transmitters. We will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that government makes good on its promises to the community media sector.

The biggest casualty here is the closure of community broadcasters, the platform for community voices, many which remain marginalised and disenfranchised. It would be sinful if we allow a station like Bush radio to close purely because of these pervasive issues. It is the oldest and most progressive community station, and we dare not play witness to it having survived apartheid but killed off in a democratic South Africa.

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