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South Africa

South African govt urged to allow community radio

afrol News, 23 June - The South African government media regulatory body is being urged to allow low power radio broadcasting to broaden access to the airwaves. A major concern is however that this could lead to "the ghettoisation of community radio."

Yesterday, the South African Community Media Policy Research Unit lobbied the communications regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), to allow low power radio broadcasting to broaden access to the airwaves, according to the locally-based Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI)

The Policy Research Unit is a joint initiative of the National Community Radio Forum and FXI, and represented the views of both organisations at an Icasa public hearing on the matter yesterday.

Icasa is currently considering the introduction of low power radio for the country, says FXI. The Broadcasting Act of 1999 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act of 1993 require the Authority to examine the feasibility of low power radio.

- Low power broadcasting has been used in other countries by community activists, banned political organisations or even religious and other groups whose interests are not usually catered for by 'mainstream' broadcasters, FXI says in a statement published today.

Given the potential that such broadcasting holds, low power broadcasting has been described by Free Speech TV in the United States as ".. stations [that] are little islands of individuality and localism in a vast sea of predictable corporate swill."

However, South Africa has not even begun to tap into low power broadcasting's potential. "Current legislative provisions on Low Power Radio are vague and inadequate to give direction on the form that such services should take," FXI argues. If Icasa decides to introduce this class of broadcasting, a legislative amendment to correct this vagueness may be necessary.

The FXI-sponsored Unit argued that, if carefully defined, "the introduction of low power broadcasting can enhance the basic rights of freedom of expression and access to information." Low Power Radio had the potential of further giving access to the airwaves for many communities.

The same Unit however also saw major reasons for concern and potential dangers. One of these was that "an ill-defined introduction of Low Power Radio can lead to the ghettoisation of community radio. If this class of broadcasting is introduced in a manner that advances commercial interests, rather than local community voices, Icasa may be lobbied to use its time and the country's frequencies to prioritise it rather than community radio."

- Hence, the Unit argued, "low power broadcasting should be used to complement rather than marginalise community radio, by providing broadcasting services in communities where very few, if any, media services exist."

The organisations also pointed out that the delays in the licensing of community radio had led to many frustrations; "if these frustrations are not addressed, then communities may be pushed to start up unlicensed pirate radio as has been the case in the United States, where the Federal Communications Commission has been locked in running battles with pirate radio stations."

The Unit further argued that in order to obviate this potential danger, low power radio should be introduced only in those communities where it can be proven that fully fledged community radio might not be sustainable for now. Also, low power radio should strictly be awarded to communities and not commercial concerns.

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