SUPERSIZED MEDIA: Independent Group in contravention of telecommunications regulations?

THE Independent Group’s interest in Clear Channel and other affiliates could contravene sections of South Africa’s telecommunication regulations laws. The regulations implemented by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), the regulator of telecommunications and broadcasting sectors, sets a precedent for the limitation of media ownership and particularly the cross-ownership of media.

Clear Channel is an international radio, television and billboard company and its local affiliate, Clear Channel Independent is 40.3% owned by Independent Media PLC, the holding company of the so-called “Independent Group”. The telecommunications act of 1996 contains some exciting news for would-be media barons. The no-holds barred Regulations in Respect of the Limitation of Ownership and Control of Telecommunication Services in Terms of Section 52, has this to say: “No person who holds an ownership interest or control interest in a licensee in any telecommunications service category in a concentrated market, or an affiliate of such person, shall hold an ownership interest or control interest in another licensee in the same telecommunications service category.”

The emphasis on alleviating pressure in concentrated markets is an important one — the question whether a newspaper company should own a billboard company that owns radio and television stations available in South Africa, “in the same telecommunications service category” is intriguing in the absence of licencing. Newspapers are registered but not licensed. But such distinctions have been rendered meaningless in the information age. Having already crossed the boundary seperating print from electronic media, should Independent now also be allowed to enter mobile telephony as some form of service provider? There seems no end to the Independent expansion.

Does the IOL/Clear Channel/Independent deal and other deals within the group contravene the act, vicariously perhaps? It’s a question that media pundits are simply too afraid to answer for fear of offending CEO Gavin O’Reilly. Groundbreaking cross-media deals that blur traditional lines seperating various categories of media are the signature tune of Independent’s new chief. The question is, do they contravene the laws as they stand? And if not, should our laws be updated to address problems within the sector? There is already a very real threat of an overconcentration of media in the hands of the few, without the addition of new media convergence such as internet and mobile telephony — South Africa’s mass media is owned by just a few individuals, a virtual elite, who operate without any checks and balances to prevent manipulation of public opinion and the censorship of news.

Calls for an end to the Independent Media cartel are growing as increasingly the issue of supersized media is being taken up by journalism and media departments around the country. Will nothing less than a partial or total dismantling of the so-called Independent Group and restrictions on other conglomorates be needed to achieve the diversity and freedom of debate necessary in a growing democracy? The Size Issue will follow this breaking story as government moves to end the cartel that is censoring debate within the newsroom.


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