South Africa, Durban
UNESCO Chair in Communications for Southern Africa
Description and Mandate of the Chair
Convergence and Divergence in the Media and Communication Landscape: Transformation in the Southern African Media and Telecommunications landscape.
1. Detailed Description of the Project
The central importance of communication, information and media has been recognised by the United Nations convening a World Summit on the Information Society at the end of 2004. The present project, presented as a plan of work to the Orbicom/ UNESCO committee concerned with the establishment of Chairs of Communication, is envisaged as an outline of work in progress and a programme of work for the next two years, entails a comprehensive study of Southern African media, communication and telecommunication landscapes, particularly as they are marked out by the dialectical processes of convergence/divergence and globalisation/localisation.
Democratisation of the media and emergence of ‘independent’ media are addressed. Negative outcomes are characterised by an increasing gap in the digital divide, cultural/media imperialism, cultural homogenisation, and the emergence of a dominant global political order propagated through global media conglomerates. Positive parallel developments include constructive interaction between the global and local/regional, and the use of new communications technologies to challenge the traditionally closed and authoritarian communications formats in the region. Finally the project seeks to understand the interface between the local and the global in the South African broadcasting, i.e. newscasting (see section on ‘Content’ below).
The project continues from previously funded research, sponsored by the South African National Research Foundation (SA-NRF). This prior work has concentrated on changes within the strategic and regulatory frameworks of state owned enterprises within the fields of broadcasting and telecommunication within South Africa. In broadcasting, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), and in telephony and telecommunications Telkom, both previously monopolistic service providers, have changed dramatically in the wake of the national move from an apartheid government in which the majority of the population was not enfranchised, to a fully-representative democracy. Of particular concern so far has been the conversion of a state broadcaster, serving the interests of a narrow minority, to a more inclusive ethos of a Public Service Broadcaster. This has entailed examining policy and implementation in areas of language delivery, local content programming on radio and television, and a radical evolution of editorial policy within the production and delivery of broadcast news services. The period of late capitalism, marked out by a global move towards economic liberalism and a technological sea change in the form of digitalisation, which, taken together with the regional political reforms, has necessitated a massive reorganisation and rethinking in almost every area of social and economic endeavour, not least in broadcasting and telecommunications. Specifically, within South Africa, competition to the previous monopolies has been introduced in the form of privately-owned commercial and community radio stations, as well as free-to-air television and the massive expansion of satellite-delivered subscription television. In the field of telecommunication, three cellular (mobile) telephony companies have been licensed, and a second nation operator (SNO) is to be launched in the area of fixed-mobile communication.
The present study will expand the previous research, by continuing to trace these developments as they have been impacted upon by political, economic and technological changes, and casting the net wider to include a consideration of developments within some of the countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Linking all of the above is a common concern with the macro-issues of globalisation and the counterpoint process of localisation, of convergence and parallel processes of divergence.
2. Scientific and Technological Background
The main theoretical inspirations for the project as a whole will be drawn from:
* theories of convergence, and the obverse process of divergence, as technological, content/cultural, economic, and /geographic/political issues;
* theories of globalisation and localisation in relation to technological, economic, political, and cultural developments; and
* political and institutional theories in relation to media development.
Convergence refers to processes through which formerly discrete functions serving specific areas of service delivery become interchangeable with one another. At a technological level, detached and previously incompatible platforms (e.g. satellites, fibre optic cable infrastructures, micro-wave transmission) can now deliver telephony, mobile communications, broadcasting and Internet connections, all of which are able to ‘speak’ to one another in a seamless mode. In terms of content, information can be transmitted through broadcasting on terrestrial networks, closed cable, direct to home satellite, Internet transmission, or any combination of the above. Content can be repurposed for film, TV programming, computer animation, DVD or videotape. Convergence also relates to the economic process of mergers both horizontally (across content and technology platforms) and vertically (down the value chain from production through distribution and related merchandising). Geographically/politically, in an increasingly transnational economic and political world, convergence refers to the globalisation and concomitant localisation of interests across borders, states and markets. Simultaneously, the contradictory process of divergence is always apparent. At its most benign, divergence is a form of financial management and development in which corporate interests are rationalised through the divestment of what are perceived to be non-core assets and interests. Companies sell off those parts of their enterprises which no longer fit their strategic objectives. Support services are ‘outsourced’ (maintenance, transport, security, catering) as the ethos of ‘light and lean’ permeates industry. A negative expression of divergence is the marginalisation of cultures, content and socio-economic interests to the edges of the mainstream, pushing to the side issues, languages, cultures and groups of people that do not fit the hegemonic interests. The present project poses the question of what kind of lessons can be learnt from the parallel processes of convergence and divergence in terms of technology, economics and culture in the Southern African region. The logic of the comparison will be thematic and arranged around the nodes within the information circuit identified in the following section.
Since ICTs depend on the quality of the underlying telecommunication infrastructure, the poor quality of the network in underdeveloped regions such as Southern Africa remains a basic impediment to rapid growth. The lack of bandwidth is a major inhibition to development. The telecommunication networks mainly are analogue and unreliable, with huge disparities in the state of existing telephone networks from one African country to another.
Globalisation is an uneven process, as exemplified by developments within international communications. Globalisation implies that networks of political, economic, social, communicative and cultural activities are becoming world-wide in scope, with the consequent intensification of interaction and interconnections between states and societies, local, national and transnational regions. Localisation is the parallel process in which nations or groups of nations respond by exercising control over their own autonomy, or exercising a regional specificity in an attempt to resist the co-option or destruction of local cultures, and the loss of regional diversities. Communication systems play a central role in the problematics of globalisation and marginalisation and relate to other economic, political, and cultural levels. This is not just a way in which news or information is conveyed more quickly, its existence alters the very texture of our lives, rich and poor alike. Information itself has become a commodity for sale, and the communications and information industries serve as a catalyst for contemporary economic development. In principle, new communication technologies open the potentials for world-wide integration, but this development is fraught with contradictions, with the resultant shift to inequities between the communication rich and communication poor, both within the wealthy societies of the North, and between countries of the North and the South. The incentive to innovate depends on the size of the market, in addition to a critical mass of new ideas and adopted technologies. The research on converging political economy will focus on changes in the media sector, both business models and production models. The tendency to major international mergers is countered by national economic actors establishing integrated companies that converge across previously separated sectors.
Issues of democracy are linked with questions of media and social convergence/ divergence. Rights are related to the relationship between the nation-state as the seat of citizens’ rights, and to processes of control through supra-national organisations both of an interstatal (e.g. EU) and commercial type. The research will focus on decision-making, e.g. free competition versus market monopolies, national sovereignty, combating ‘information gap’, regulation and public service policies. In terms of democracy, a set of issues pertains to the role of media and information on the right to freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the importance for citizens to obtain as wide a variety of possible or alternative information and interpretations of social and political developments in local, national, regional, and global perspectives. Globalisation has as one of its effects a strengthening of political and economic power in a few global centres, as other parts of the world experience a decentralisation. The issue of development strategies arises from the ‘technology gap’ and its implications for a wider set of issues – eg. ecology, health, education.
Southern African PerspectivesSince processes of change took off in the early 1990s there have been significant shifts in the political economy of the Southern African media – newspaper, broadcasting, Internet, cinema and telecommunications (see, e.g., Tomaselli & Dunn 2002). Across the region, institutions, media companies and parastatals are engaged with ‘transformation’, both in the guise as the discourse and demographics of organisational change, as well as the changing the ethos within business. In general terms, the following processes are under way:
– globalisation of ownership and control, with foreign interests purchasing shares in local media; and local media gaining international interests;
– regionalisation, indicated by the penetration of South African-based media companies gaining a stronghold in the neighbouring states, while at the same time, Zimbabwean telecommunications and print interests have purchased shares in South African companies;
– black empowerment, especially in South Africa and Namibia, whereby union- and political party-dominated capital now own shares in a variety of major media industries;
– state controlled media are coming into conflict with privately run media, which are more critical of government, and which highlight freedom of speech issues, a regional feature exemplified in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia;
– privatisation, whereby governments have sold off blocs of shares to party-political interests and commercial investors, both local and international;
– regulatory and popular emphasis on protection of indigenous knowledge, cultural and linguistic diversity, has seen the establishment of community media (radio and telecentres);
– localised broadcasting; quota-led local production and multi-lingual dissemination of broadcasting content through digital technologies.
3. Specific Objectives and expected significance of the research
The research objectives can be summarised by the following single research question:
What are the contours of convergence and divergence that mark out the cultural and communication terrains within broadcasting and telecommunication in Southern Africa?
Specific attention will be paid to the impact of ‘new media’, changing technology, particularly digitalisation in the spheres of both production and delivery and satellite transmission. The reception and meaning making potentialities of content, including the ways in which audiences receive, use and interpret information, will be central to the concerns of this research. The processes embodied in the circuit of information are multiple, interdependent and at times, contradictory. For the purposes of the present research, five nodal points have been identified.
The political economy of the media, information and communication sectors traditionally have centred on studies of ownership and control; mergers, acquisitions and monopolisation; divestment and fracturing; cross-media ownership, trans-national control; state ownership and privatisation; internationalisation and regionalisation; liberalisation and commercialisation. All of these areas have been a major emphasis for both the academic programme with Culture, Communication and Media Studies at the University of Natal, Durban, as well as the personal interests of the present researcher. The contradictions in power and wealth are sharpest at the social and economic margins of the global economy. Southern Africa, as a post-colonial economy which, after a protracted period of economic isolation associated with apartheid, only recently has been exposed to the full glare of globalisation. The project will attempt to unpack many of the dynamics inherent in the making up and breaking up of horizontal and vertical integration, resulting in the disintegration of vast enterprises. The primary case study to be initiated to explore the uneven and contradictory effects of the global economy within a particularly volatile sector of the information industry will be those companies under the umbrella of MultiChoice. At various times these have included subscription broadcasting (M-Net), satellite-based transmission platform (MultiChoice), Internet portals and e-mail subscriptions (MWeb), cellular telephony (MTN), and newspaper publishing both in traditional paper format (Nasionalepers) and electronically (News24.com).
Technology provides the platform and infrastructure for all information and communication grids. Investigations into current technological developments within information and communication networks would include questions of digitalisation, including television, which is moving apace. This digitalisation will enable more channels as well as new and interactive services. It also raises new political challenges related to nationwide provision of television, media concentration and cultural policy in a globalised media market. In Southern Africa, the spectrum compression associated with digitalisation results in opportunities for network expansion. This would allow for programmes to be broadcast in a multiplicity of languages. The central research question here relates to how, in the arenas of economic ownership and control within information, communication and media industries, the dynamics of convergence and divergence, globalisation and localisation, have been played out.
Legislation & Regulation
Following 1990, major shifts occurred in the regulatory regimes of Southern African media and telecommunications. Work already done in Natal, as well as our partners in Oslo, has tracked many of these changes, explaining them in terms of globalisation/localisation, de-and re-regulation, privatisation and liberalisation. Currently, nation-specific and comparative studies by Eric Masango (Zimbabwe ) Nkosi Ndlela  and Dumisani Moyo (Zimbabwe and Zambia ) at IMK, and Teer-Tomaselli (South Africa ), Heuva (Namibia ) and Sethunya Mphinyane (Botswana) . These studies cover aspects of broadcasting and/or telecommunications and the convergence between the two at the policy, regulatory and implementation levels. Southern African multi-purpose telecentres are an exemplary outcome of this convergence.The central research question here relates to how, in the arenas of legislation and regulation within information, communication and media sectors, the dynamics of convergence and divergence, globalisation and localisation, have been played out.
Information content, delivered both via broadcasting (radio and television) and the Internet, is implicated heavily in the cultural values of societies at both the local and the global levels, playing out in debates on identity; cultural diversity and linguistic pluralism. A key part of this dynamic has been the policy towards, and the construction of, locally (i.e. nationally) produced content on these information platforms. Previous studies by the present researcher on the transformation of South African broadcasting includes a scrutiny of the policies towards local production by the broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory body (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, ICASA) and the strategies of the broadcasters, both in the private and the public sector. Case studies of specific programmes, examining the themes, linguistic and racial composition of the protagonists, and most importantly, the values and mores embodied in the programmes, will be examined. Children’s, youth, narrative, documentary and sports programming will be included.
Finally, the project will reflect upon the theoretical, conceptual and methodological implications of the combined constructive-interpretational approach, and how these relate to traditional humanistic positions. The central research question here relates to how, in the arenas of production, content and culture within information, communication and media sectors, the dynamics of convergence and divergence, globalisation and localisation, have been played out.
4. Methodology, Forms of co-operation and Plan of work
The study is broad-ranging and inclusive, and covers a number of inter-related areas. In order to be able to achieve this outcome, it cannot be the work of one person alone, but needs to be a collaboration between the principal researcher and others. The principal researcher will work closely with colleagues, both those in her own University at situated in affiliated institutions. In the spirit of mentorship and empowerment, graduate students registered within Culture, Communication and Media Studies at the University of Natal, Durban, will be drawn into the research, thus benefitting from the opportunities provided by the UNESCO/Orbicom association.
In order to cover the various aspects of the project, two modalities will be employed a) case studies and b) synthetic integration. Thus, a number of interlinking projects will result in a single, comparative analysis. The project will bring together debates around convergence and divergence within the global media and communication landscape in a way which emphasises both similarities and differences (convergence and divergence) across a matrix of six thematic nodes, as outlined above. When the individual cases are lined up, the cross-questions and cross currents which run through the various areas will be identified and analysed. The intention is to move beyond individual case studies in order to provide a coherent account of the changing media, information and communication environment. The principal research methods used in communications systems research come from the disciplines of ethnography, sociology and textual analysis. By necessity, the methods must be multidisciplinary, as informational systems by nature are hybrid technologies encompassing such phenomena as media, markets and organisations, as well as the explicit and implicit rules and inscriptions of the social, legal and physical frameworks in which they operate. This implies the need to select approaches on a case-by-case basis. The case studies will provide a dialectical interplay between theory and data. The research will operate from a concrete, densely empirical basis. It is not the intention to write up yet another theoretical shell, rich in rhetoric and vast, universal concepts, but to interrogate notions such ‘global/local’; ‘convergent/divergent’ in relation to specific, concrete realities as they play out in their complexity, ambivalence and contradictions.
Preliminary findings will be presented at the Third International Seminar on the Political Economy of the Southern African Media, to be held in Durban, South Africa, between the 12 and the 16th of April 2004. A further paper will be delivered at the biennial Conference and General Assembly of the International Association for Media and Communication, scheduled to meet in Porto Alegre, Brazil, July 2004. The final report, due at the end of 2005, will be available as a written text and a CD.
In course of the research, a number of student researchers will be mentored, contributing to the development of their own research and dissertations, including three PhDs and several Masters students.
Updated: 22 August, 2003
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