Platform dominance in South Africa

February 15, 2023

Table of Contents

Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

The threat to media sustainability and public interest journalism in the Global South predates the dominance of digital platform companies. Media economies in developing countries have long struggled with viability and continue to reflect persistent structural inequalities.

However, it is increasingly evident that the preexisting financial challenges faced by the media have been exacerbated by big platform companies. Digital publishers in lower- to upper-middle-income countries have been forced to adopt a range of partnership and business strategies with platform companies in order to survive.

Given that a strong, sustainable independent media is integral to democracy, governments and regulators across the world are being urged to develop new policies that address media funding and potential media market failure.

South African media have not been spared global trends as Meta and Google now control over 70 percent of internet advertising spending. In the past five years, internet advertising has more than doubled, to over $1 billion, while total print media and magazine revenues decreased by 30 percent, to $434 million, resulting in widespread layoffs.

The country is now twenty-eight years into democracy and arguably has some of the freest media in the world, enabled by strong constitutional protections and an independent judiciary. However, this flourishing of free expression has not protected media outlets from systemic financial risk.

Two policy initiatives are underway to tackle the sustainability of public and private media in South Africa.

First, there is an ongoing government review of legacy broadcasting laws. As part of this process, the South African Broadcasting Corporation made detailed policy and legislative proposals on the future funding of public media.

Second, in a parallel process run by the Competition Commission, the Publisher Support Services and the South African National Editors’ Forum have made separate submissions on urgent measures to support public interest journalism, news media outlets, and public media.

Funding Public Media

Globally, public media is seen as “an increasingly endangered species” due to political interference in operations, the lack of funding, and the rise of global streaming platforms. After years of political interference in South African public media, a High Court held in 2017 that government ministers were precluded from interfering with the SABC board’s activities and reaffirmed the public broadcaster’s unique constitutional role. The judgment was a significant boost to independent public media and became a powerful shield protecting the SABC board’s independence and the editorial independence of SABC News. 

The SABC is particularly exposed as one of the most commercially dependent public broadcasters in the world, with commercial revenue constituting 80 percent of total revenue. Not only is public financing insufficient to fund the SABC’s public mandate, but the existing television license fee is seen as an archaic concept in a multi-device world.

Based on the principle that public media is fundamentally a public good, the SABC submitted wide-ranging funding proposals to the government in 2021. These submissions took into account the German Federal Constitutional Court’s approach that a levy was justified as it was “specifically for the financing of public service programming that is fundamental to democracy.”

The SABC recommended fixing the license fee, not scrapping it, and proposed:

  • replacing the broken television license fee system with a redefined, device-independent, public media levy applying to all households, with an exemption for indigent households; and
  • requiring the monopoly pay-TV operator, Multichoice, and any streaming services that achieve scale, to partially collect the public media levy from subscribers on behalf of the public broadcaster. The SABC would continue to collect the balance through improved online offerings including via their recently launched streaming service, SABC+.

Multichoice rejected the proposal, saying it would be globally unprecedented “to shift revenue collection to the private sector on the part of public service broadcasters.” However, the SABC’s proposal to extend collection of the public levy to pay-TV and streaming platforms is light-touch in comparison with the range of investment obligations for streaming platforms being discussed in EU countries.

In December, the South African government announced that it would soon be tabling an SABC Bill that will revise “the governance structure and funding model of the SABC.” At the time of writing, the SABC had been without a board for four months, calling into question the government’s commitment to independent public broadcasting. It remains to be seen which options policymakers will take in addressing the financing and governance of public media in South Africa.


Competition Law and Bargaining Codes

In the second policy track, the Competition Commission is finalizing a market inquiry into online intermediation platforms. As part of this inquiry, the PSS group of publishers made a strong case for regulatory intervention to address market failure in the news media, including draft legislation along the lines of the Australian News Media Bargaining Code.

While an NMBC-style intervention is not a panacea for public interest journalism and was dropped by the US Congress in December 2022, the Australian law is widely recognized as an important start, with similar codes being considered in Canada and the UK. Along the same lines, the SANEF position paper made multifaceted recommendations, including an improved bargaining code, with learnings from Australia.

SANEF also recommended that SABC News should “be included in any sustainability intervention.” The public broadcaster was the country’s “second largest online news source” and “unusually reliant on commercial revenue.” SANEF highlighted the Australian precedent, which saw funding for more than fifty Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalists in regional locations after commercial negotiations with Meta and Google.

The Competition Commission subsequently decided in a provisional report that the issues raised by PSS and SANEF did not fall within the scope of the current inquiry and that these should be addressed through “a more focused market inquiry.” There is no indication yet when this more focused inquiry will commence, though more clarity is expected when the commission releases its final report this month.

An existing funding body—the Media Diversity and Development Agency—has been continually mired in controversy about the alleged misuse of its relatively small budget and is not seen as an effective solution to broader media sustainability challenges in South Africa.

In this context, there are several lessons from the South African experience: 

  • freedom of expression is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for media sustainability;
  • siloed approaches to the sustainability of private and public media should be avoided;
  • increased financing for public media must be founded on strong governance and editorial independence;
  • pay-TV and streaming platforms should assist in collecting public media levies; and
  • competition authorities are best suited to deal with issues of platform dominance and media market failure.

While approaches to media sustainability in Australia, Europe, and North America will continue to inform the rest of the world, countries in the Global South should also implement innovative, homegrown policy measures to fund public media and help address the impact of platform dominance on all news media.

Michael Markovitz is head of the GIBS Media Leadership Think Tank in the University of Pretoria’s business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He also served as an SABC board member between 2017 and 2022.