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date: 17 November 2019

Summary and Keywords

National broadcasters are a standard feature across Africa. Set up by colonial regimes, they dominate media landscapes with their unrivaled geographic reach. Radio continues to be the main—and often only—source of information outside urban centers, where commercial media struggle to survive and illiteracy remains a challenge. Although access to new media has risen exponentially, use of mobile technology continues to be prohibitively expensive.

Some national broadcasters are official state broadcasters: owned, run, and editorially controlled by government. However, many claim to be public broadcasters. By definition, these are accountable to the public rather than the government of the day: accessible to a universal audience, inclusive of a wide range of views; and fair, balanced, and independent in their journalism. This aspiration is reflected in national and supranational policy such as the African Charter on Broadcasting and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

In reality, these broadcasters lack de jure independence, the basic condition for them to be considered “public.” They are, in law and in practice, state broadcasters—owed to a range of historical, social, financial, and political determinants despite attempts by journalists and civil society to change this. Principally, the political will has been lacking—in colonial as well as postcolonial elites—to relinquish control of newsrooms and open up space for dissent.

There is one exception: the South African Broadcasting Corporation was granted de jure independence following apartheid and enjoys unrivaled (though contested) legal guarantees and journalistic freedom. Its ongoing difficulties to fully meet its public broadcasting mandate despite this relatively conducive environment demonstrate that de jure independence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful broadcasting transformation, and that organizational culture is an important variable to be taken into account.

Keywords: public broadcasting, public service broadcasting, radio, journalism, broadcasting transformation media, South African Broadcasting Corporation, organizational culture, new media, African politics

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