More voices in the media chorus

Here’s a personal quirk: I like start-up businesses. I particularly like start-up media businesses.

So you will have to forgive me when I tell you that tears welled up in my eyes at precisely 7pm on 1 June 2008. It was a great day. South Africa’s first independent 24-hour news channel, eNews Channel, went live on air – and I was lucky enough to be there to witness and participate in it.

Veteran broadcaster Jeremy Maggs, cool as a cucumber and smooth like no one’s business, said the first few words. Then the pack of journalists and technical staff holding their breaths in the background stood up in unison and applauded. Once again, brave business and media people had stuck their toes into uncharted waters and launched yet another news outlet.

Something happens when a new newspaper, magazine, website or television channel is launched. It is a bit like a child being born. We hold our breaths. We wait for that first edition or that first broadcast and pray for all of it to go well.

It rarely ever does. With newspapers, the printed edition comes back with spelling errors and wonky design. With radio and television, presenters fluff their lines and there are silences on air as transmitters skip a beat or two. Editors shout and young rookies think their careers are finished.

But one thing that stays with me about these media start-ups is this: I can feel the weight and importance of the fact that a new voice is being added to our society. Every time some brave soul launches yet another media business, I feel like the foundations of our democracy are being dug even deeper into this country’s soil.

It is often said that many democracies take their freedom for granted. South Africa is fortunate that it has so many media outlets who are free to speak their minds on any and all issues. Nothing is off the agenda. Politicians are criticized, businessmen kept on their toes and ordinary citizens shown the errors of their ways – or the exemplary nature of their deeds.

It is all thanks to the vibrancy of the media. It is all thanks to the fact that from John Tengo Jabavu, who founded Imvo Zabantsundu (“Black Opinion”) in the late 1800s, we have been starting newspapers, failing at it and starting them all over again.

In 1985, a century after Jabavu founded Imvo to speak up against colonialism, the Mail and Guardian was founded by young journalists to stand up against and expose apartheid’s atrocities. Along with it was the New Nation and other, smaller but equally feisty magazines and small journals printed by night. It is worth remembering today that it was exactly these newspapers who were at the forefront of exposing the worst of apartheid South Africa’s atrocities and bringing down the National Party government.

I think the vibrancy that started with Jabavu and others way back then exists and continues today. I have lived through several births and deaths of newspapers and magazines, and still feel the elation and the dejection acutely.

Information is the bedrock of a democracy. Without an informed citizenry, without the free flow and exchange of ideas, democracies flounder and die. A democracy is only as good as the number of people in it who are informed and have the ability and choice to contest ideas.

It is a measure of South Africa’s maturity and sophistication as a democracy that there are so many news outlets in the country. A plethora of newspapers exists both at the top end of the market and at the tabloid level.

Only recently, in a market that many did not believe could sustain another newspaper, the Sunday Times launched a daily version called The Times. A year down the line, it is healthy and gaining momentum. In KwaZulu Natal, an isiZulu-language newspaper called Isolezwe continues to grow in leaps and bounds.

The launch of eNews Channel is only a beginning of the activity in television. New pay-television licensees including Telkom Media and ODM are working feverishly to launch new bouquets to take on the market leader, Multichoice, which already has more than 170 channels.

And the blogosphere. Well, if you want to get angry, happy and everything else in between, read the South African blogosphere. Young and old alike are blogging on everything from fashion to politics to business to golf. And with broadband access being rolled out fast, we are set to see more activity as fast internet connections increase.

We are a fortunate country to have all these. If there are any doubts about the strength of South Africa’s democracy, one need only look at the competitiveness and vibrancy of the South African media landscape.

It is a place to make you smile.

Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel e.tv and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.