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Citizens are the losers in media-municipal conflict
Good relations between community media and municipalities are vital to keep residents informed of local developments. But in many parts of the country this isn’t happening.
complaint. On the other hand, councillors and officials in local government have their own complaints about community media. Some say community journalists are just on the lookout for scandals and are not interested in providing the community with useful information on dayto-day issues. Others say many journalists don’t understand how local government works. They don’t go to the right people for information, and then point fingers when they experience problems. One Free State mayor, when questioned about his negative attitude towards the community radio station, complained that they charged him R20 every time they interviewed him. Wherever the problems lie, it is crucial that community media and municipalities deal with and resolve them, in the interests of their communities. Local community radio stations or newspapers are uniquely positioned to report on the local governments in their areas. If they don’t, or can’t, nobody else is going to. Turn on your TV, tune in to a national radio station, page through one of the large mainstream newspapers – you find almost no coverage of local government. If you do, it will generally be a story about a major metropolitan area – Cape Town, Johannesburg or Durban. None of the mainstream media are covering the Ugu municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, Mbombela in Mpumalanga, or Sakhisizwe in the Eastern Cape. The big media cover large areas and generally don’t have the time, money or the inclination to focus on small municipalities. So we need community media to focus on their municipalities. There is a reason why a hallmark of democracy is freedom of the media. The media play a number of crucial roles. They provide citizens with the information that enables them to make wise decisions. They educate people. They provide a forum where citizens can debate issues and deliberate over community priorities. And the media can hold government to account by investigating problems and asking tough questions. While this is healthy for democracy, it’s not necessarily comfortable for those in positions of power, and Marais speculates that this is one reason that local councillors and officials are reluctant to engage with his station: ‘We not here to polish their image. We here to deal with the real issues,’ he says. ‘We ask questions on behalf of the community. We praise when praise is due, but ask tough questions when appropriate.’ While tough questions may feel like a nuisance to busy councillors and administrators, the best approach is to work out an effective response, not to avoid them. Handswell Phakula, a community development facilitator in the Greater Tzaneen Municipality, discovered this back in 2000. The municipality was unhappy with the media coverage they were getting, and organised a meeting with local and national media to thrash out their differences. After that, things began to improve. ‘We realised it doesn’t help to run away from them,’ he says, ‘because they will go after the story and write bad stuff about you. When you interact with them, they will include your perspective and produce a more balanced story.’ And while the local media may be sniffing out scandals, more often they want to provide their audiences with useful information, or get responses to community complaints and queries. Blessing Sincuba is news editor with Radio Khwezi, in KwaZulu-Natal – a station which has won several national journalism awards. Sincuba says that during the seven-odd years the station’s been Community radio stations are vital to SA’s democracy — they provide local news and broadcast in all official languages. on air, they haven’t covered any scandals or exposés. He says, ‘we would follow the story if there were a scandal, but mostly the community wants us to speak about development. What is coming to us from the municipality, such as water, roads, electricity. The basic needs’. Radio Khwezi’s broadcast footprint covers eight local councils and four or five district municipalities. Unlike many other stations, Khwezi has managed to establish good relationships with most of these structures. But the marketing manager, Peter Rice, says he wishes many of the councils were more educated in dealing with the media. ‘On some important topics, nobody can speak without getting the approval of the exco and the mayor,’ he says. In trying to establish better relationships, it is crucial for stations and councils to understand the difference between sponsored or paid-for airtime. Under its licence conditions, a community radio station is obliged to provide its community with up-to-date news and information about local issues and should report on major council decisions without demanding payment from the council for doing so. At the same time, the station or newspaper must maintain its editorial independence and it has the final say over what news to include and exclude. While this may be uncomfortable to those in power, it is of long-term benefit to democracy. Many stations and newspapers sell airtime or space to organisations or government departments. For example, a mayor might buy a regular 10-minute slot on a community station, which she uses to promote new projects. When it comes to paid-for content, the person paying has final control over what is said, provided no laws or licence conditions are violated. It is crucial that paid-for slots are clearly identified as such. Audiences need to be aware that what they are hearing or seeing is coming from a source with a particular interest. This is an area where community radio stations in particular feel hard done by. Many complain that government at all levels is reluctant to pay for advertising or promotional airtime, while being prepared to fork out thousands for advertisements in the commercial media. Valley FM’s Marais says he proposed a slot, sponsored by the council, where the mayor would come in and take calls from members of the community. He felt that this would bring much-needed finances to the station, while bringing local government closer to the coloured and black communities who make up the largest proportion of the station’s listeners. ‘The request fell on deaf ears,’ says Marais, ‘but they are prepared to pay for full page, colour spreads in the local paper, aimed at the white community.’ Many of the problems between community media and local government are the result of misperceptions, and often these point to greater misunderstandings between a council and the broader community. George Frederickson writes of a study in the USA which found that many local officials blamed the media for fuelling public frustration. But further investigation revealed a deeper problem — elected officials and citizens had different ideas of what it meant for the council to be doing a good job. Mayors and municipal managers thought their job was to lead, be efficient and solve problems quickly, whereas residents expected to be included in processes of decision-making and valued a sense of belonging, of ‘community’ above efficiency. S Brett Davidson is the manager of IDASA’s All Media Group (www.idasa.org.za)
DELIVERY | 63 Photograph: Idasa


By BRETT DAVIDSON RANCOIS MARAIS is the manager of a community radio station called Valley FM, in Worcester. The station has been on air for a year — it got its licence in December, 2003. Every Tuesday evening since then, the station has presented a two-hour programme covering local government issues. The programme’s producers regularly invite local and provincial officials into the studio as guests, to answer listeners’ questions and complaints. ‘It has been easier to get hold of provincial ministers than local government officials,’ says Marais. ‘They (the local government officials) give us lame excuses. Sometimes they say yes, and then don’t pitch.’ This November, after a year of trying, Marais finally managed to organise his first meeting with the council’s communications officer. Marais’ story is not unique. At community radio stations and newspapers around the country you will hear the same

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