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Friday, 26 March 2010

FALSE DAWN FOR BROADCAST FREEDOM

News that the state-run radio and television in Swaziland are to change and become ‘public service broadcasters’ is not true.

A statement from the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) – Swaziland chapter said that the Swaziland Public Broadcasting Bill, expected to be tabled before the Swazi Parliament within the next six months, will see the present broadcasting stations ‘transformed’.

It is true that there is a bill, but it will not lead to ‘public service broadcasting’.

In the debate taking place around the new bill there is a basic misunderstanding about what ‘public service broadcasting’ is.

In Swaziland at present we have a’ public broadcasting service’, that is a service that is broadcast to the public. The ‘service’ is state controlled and the new bill does not intend to change that. Radio and television will come under a new commission that will be appointed by the Minister of Information. Radio and television will continue to be an arm of the ruling elite, while Swaziland remains an absolute monarchy.

‘Public service broadcasting’ is a very particular kind of broadcasting and most definitely not broadcast from Swaziland. Public service broadcasting aims to inform, educate and entertain in a way in which the commercial or state sector left unregulated would not do. Generally, it is understood that public service broadcasters air a wide range of programmes in a variety of tastes and interests. They speak to everyone as a citizen and everyone has an opportunity to access the airways and participate in public life.

Public service broadcasting in providing access to a wide range of information and ideas empowers people through its programming. This empowerment goes against the grain in Swaziland, which is not a democracy. Currently, broadcasters in Swaziland serve the interests of the ruling elites and not those of the people. Broadcasting is state-controlled, that means no criticism of the staus quo is allowed on the airwaves in Swaziland. Any criticism of the ruling elite is seen as ‘non-Swazi’.

In the past the minister responsible for broadcasting has taken a ‘hands-on’ role, believing he has the right to make day-to-day decisions that affect the broadcasting organisations. This was made explicit in 2003 by the then Minister of Information Abednego Ntshangase who announced a censorship policy for state media, saying that, ‘the national television and radio stations are not going to cover anything that has a negative bearing on government’.

Today that policy of censorship continues.

Public service broadcasting cannot exist alongside state control. Public service broadcasting must keep a distance from vested interests (in the case of Swaziland that’s the ruling elite). Radio and television stations need to be left alone to make their own decisions regarding business and the content of their channels. The new Public Broadcasting Bill does not do that.

Sorry, but it’s business as usual with the new Public Broadcasting Bill – don’t be fooled.

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