William Bird | Looting of community radio stations: just a remarkable coincidence?

William Bird | Looting of community radio stations: just a remarkable coincidence?

William Bird writes that while it is still unclear whether four community radio stations were looted as part of a strategy to destabilise our county, it is quite a happy coincidence.

On Friday last week, there was some reason for optimism; our country’s vaccination programme was steadily starting to increase to the numbers we needed to achieve to get the majority of our people vaccinated and help prevent another tragic wave. Any optimism has been brought crashing to the ground, not just because of the looting, destruction and tragic loss of life but also because among the targets were four community radio stations.  Alex FM, in Alexandra, Mams Radio, in Mamelodi, West Side FM, in Kagiso, and Intokozo FM, in Durban.

I’m not highlighting the trashing of the radio stations in some sort of perverse competition to say it is worse than the loss of a loved one or loss of business, but because the looting of community media is an act of destruction of the community itself. 

READ | #UnrestSA: Looters target community radio stations in KZN, Gauteng

One of the few positives to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic has been highlighting the critical role media play in a crisis. It highlighted not just the importance of access to accurate, credible and reliable information but also the vital importance of communication. 

Free media needed in a democracy

We all know our media has faults. They are under-resourced and make mistakes, pretty much like all of us, actually. Their role in a democracy, though cannot be underestimated. As a public good and as a means for the public to sift through the deluge of content they are bombarded by on social media, journalism helps us make sense and understand what’s going on.  Good journalism explains events and lets us know what is being done. Journalism, credible, accurate and fair media are an integral pillar of any democracy. There can be no democracy without a free, credible and accurate media.  But media matters not just on a principle and structural basis for democracy level, media matters on a personal, and people level too.

Journalism and media are also essential to our identities, the music we like, the talk shows and current affairs, the experts and issues that enable us to form strong opinions. Media helps build our sense of self and community.

There is a reason why whenever there are efforts to destabilise a country media is always targeted. Just look at eSwatini in the last few weeks where in an effort to control and shift the narrative they shut down the internet and tortured journalists, including some of our own. Seeking to control the narrative and shift what people know and believe is crucial to those who wish to destabilise.

READ | Lynsey Chutel: Want to silence young Africans and hold on to power? Shut off the internet

Media, and journalists in particular, are almost always calm in a crisis, often because journalists are exposed to life and death crises every day. They aren’t out there screaming and yelling and involved in the violence; they are there asking questions recording footage, speaking to looters, to the police, residents and vigilantes.  Journalists risk their lives to bring us the news. Every day.  So in a time of crisis, we turn to them to help us understand the government message, to see through some of the lies and deception, and ideally empower us to make up our own minds.

We don’t yet know if the looting of the four stations was targeted as a strategy to destabilise our country and incite further violence.  But it seems an extremely happy coincidence that for those who are inciting the violence that they would target a centre of the community, a structure that represents the antithesis of violence, that represents dialogue, discussion, debate, information, commonality, and community. It makes sense that those who would want to encourage more senseless violence that they would seek to silence those who would try to calm things down, for people to consider their actions. It seems also to be too joyous a coincidence that those odorous cretins seeking to incite, encourage and instigate violence had free reign to do so on social media, all in their efforts to deepen division, increase anger, fear, desperation and anxiety.  Also, shutting down the community media forces communities to turn elsewhere for information. Those alternative sources are not always other credible media – this takes away a reliable source, making it far easier for people to fall victim to disinformation. Again an exceptionally wonderful coincidence for those stoking violence.

A direct attack on a community

Many of those who looted are not different to any of us. Placed in their shoes, I suspect most of us would have acted in the same way, which is precisely why it’s so important to have those in the community who can see different options and paths to have a voice, to calm, and deescalate. Looting community media then isn’t just about the offensiveness of the act of destruction but of how it represents a direct attack on the community itself, on the communities identity and dignity.

In attacking  community media, those inciting the violence have sought to silence the community itself, they have sought to deny the community its voice and a forum to air views, to debate and to criticise. 

The attack is more than destruction of property and community and a clear and fundamental violation of the right to receive and impart information and freedom of expression.

The state recognises the importance of media, and its one reason why the SABC is a national key point. (Why are community media not national key points too? A good question but for another piece)

READ | Glenda Daniels: Exposing the fault lines in SA media

As we navigate the crisis, its essential we recognise the role of our media, that we support them and enable them to do their jobs, that we allow them to listen to report and share with us and to help us understand and to end the violence. 

For the communities impacted, it’s critical that one of the first structures they repair is their community stations, as they will go some way in rebuilding the community.  For the state, they need to find those responsible and get to the bottom of why the stations were looted and then they need to ensure those responsible are exposed and brought to justice.

– William Bird is the director at Media Monitoring Africa.

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