Citizens Shouldn’t Pay Extra to See Their Leaders at Work

Parliament TV broadcasting the community engagements on changing the Constitution to expropriate land without compensation.

The poor cannot see the community engagements on changing the Constitution to expropriate land without compensation.

Cape Town

Since the 2014 elections, public interest in what is going on in Parliament has dramatically increased. The robust and sometimes disruptive manner in which Economic Freedom Fighters engage in debates in the National Assembly raised public interest in processes of the legislature.

The work of the portfolio committees has been equally riveting and carry strong educational value for ordinary citizens about how processes of the democratic parliament unfold. The case in point has been hearings into the crises at parastatals SABC, Eskom, and SAA. Many who can’t attend these proceedings rely on Parliament TV to know how the country is run. This empowers ordinary citizens to participate meaningfully on platforms where their voices are called for in the law-making process.

Parliament TV remains an exclusive medium on a pay TV channel, however. Those who can’t afford to be subscribers remain excluded from this publicly funded service. For citizens to follow live proceedings on policy-making, they are forced to invest in a private company.

The profit-making of Multichoice prevails over a constitutional obligation of access to information where citizens have a right to know how political leaders execute their mandate. This is a classic case of how privatisation of the media limits possibilities for deepening democracy.

This corporate dominance has a history that predates democracy. Multichoice is a company owned by the media giant Naspers, which was formed in 1915 to support Afrikaner nationalism. Naspers grew to be the mouthpiece of apartheid and it launched Multichoice in 1986 when the first pay-TV channel, M-Net, was established. It grew substantially under the ANC rule and even extended its presence to more than 48 countries on the continent, riding on the back of Mbeki’s African Renaissance program.

Multichoice currently has about 6.5-million subscribers in South Africa, an operating budget of R19.3-billion and annual profit of R3.6-billion. In May 2017 it admitted to price-fixing and was fined R22-million by the Competition Commission, another case of continuing lenience of state institutions in dealing with corporate crimes.

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The case of Parliament TV is a clear indicator of how untransformed and anti-poor our mainstream media remains.

Despite a number of policy changes and continuing interventions to change the media landscape, the historical dominance of white-owned private media companies continues. The ruling party has since 2015 identified this as a problem when its cabinet Lekgotla resolved to place this channel on a free-to-air platform for the benefit of ordinary citizens.

That was 3 years ago and citizens are still compelled to be Multichoice subscribers in order to access content on parliamentary proceedings. It is rather unfair that citizens are expected to pay TV licenses and yet again pay Multichoice to see their leaders at work. Parliamentarians are public servants doing public service and paid by public money. Why should Multichoice get rich for supplying content that is publicly funded? It would make sense that Parliament TV is part of SABC but for that to happen the transformation of the SABC into a fully-fledged public broadcaster must be achieved. It is clear that Multichoice benefits from the multiple crises plaguing the SABC.

We have seen the rights of broadcasting football being sold off to Supersport. A campaign from below is needed to push for a change. The unending crisis at the public broadcaster may in some way explain the failure to move Parliament TV.

Should the mess at the SABC be seen as enough of a reason to keep such content on a private platform? It is no secret that the SABC has financial problems and affording this addition to its spectrum of services might be difficult. However, the monopoly of private entities in the television broadcasting simply cannot go on unchallenged and certainly untransformed.

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