Television Access: Intersection of Race, Class and Politics: 1

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Rukee Tjingaete (An extract from his 1997 Doctoral Thesis) This research explored whether social class, race, and political status of the information sources in Namibia determine their use (access) on television. Since independence in 1990, the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) has been under heavy pressure from rival political parties, racial groups, and social classes that compete for television access. The important rival groups that generally seek legitimacy through television access are the following: 1. A conservative former white ruling class that rejects racial integration. 2. An impoverished African majority that has just freed itself from the chains of apartheid and therefore seeking more legitimacy through the media. 3. A new Western educated black elite who would like to see programs that are more Western on NBC television. The results obtained through content analysis, in-depth interviews, and a structured survey questionnaire revealed that the race of the information source is not a significant predictor of television access in post-apartheid Namibia. Today, many television producers are using more blacks as information sources on local NBC television programs than it was before independence. The research results consistently confirmed that the information source’s class and political status have replaced race in predicting the sources that are very often given access to express their views on local television programs. Analysis and Conclusions There has been a general increase of television access to the country’s black population since independence. Unlike in the past when whites dominated local television programs, the NBC has made progress in changing the situation. This change has been enhanced by a number of factors, among which the replacement of white management with black management was the main cause. The increase of television access to the black population is not only perceived by the survey respondents, but it is confirmed by the findings of the content analysis (table 18, pp.79). Black sources are used much more often than white sources on all the four programs used in the content analysis. In the program known as “Public Eye” which investigates social inequality, whites are sometimes presented as the villains and remnants of the old order, while blacks appear as the victims. Public Eye investigates theft of government houses on the eve of independence; the continuing maltreatment of miners and sale of defective vehicles imported from South African white companies to black consumers in Namibia. While many reports compiled for this program are very effective in exposing social inequality, theft and racism in the Namibian society, not many government officials are investigated to account for the apparent lack of efforts to combat lawlessness and corruption in the country. Therefore, the results of investigative journalism on this program appear to be not effectively utilized by program producers. The increasing faces of blacks on television (including rural faces) did not come without white resistance at the corporation. Insiders within the NBC corridors, including two top management officials revealed that the industrial pressure applied by an employee steering committee against lack of affirmative action at the corporation in 1992 had the initial reform impact. Today, ordinary employees at the corporation feel that after some of the blacks in the steering committee had won promotion, they suddenly forgot the plights of the low-ranking workers. Some of the changes are accredited to a new board and the appointments of both Daniel Tjongarero (Director-General) and Vitura Kavari (senior controller of auxiliary services) to the top echelon of the corporation. Although Kavari was initially tipped to replace the ailing Tjongarero who died from a long ailment, Ben Mulongeni inherited the position. But the change in the program content of the NBC television has not helped to conceal the deep-seated racial animosity between black and white employees that was never resolved. On the surface the race conflict appears to have been officially contained, while the tension between white and black employees is boiling underneath. One of the rare white employees who did not leave the corporation after it was taken over by a predominant black management team described the situation: “We now work for the same corporation, share offices, equipment, toilets and pool cars. However, we live in two separate worlds of black and white.” Many prominent whites outside the NBC do not consider the increase of black faces on television as reverse discrimination. Neither do they view it as a deliberate attempt to deny the whites access to local programs. One of the senior officials of the Democratic Media Holdings said they did not fear a discrimination backlash in the country (personal interview, 1997). The DMH official said that whites who are only 10 percent of the population have retained strong economic power and this makes them very visible in the Namibian mass media. However, the exodus of white employees from the NBC to the right-wing press (after the corporation was taken over by a black management team) has resulted in two things: A growing disenchantment expressed by the local press against the NBC management whom they accuse of incompetence. The right-wing press assuming the role of being the official voice of both the white Afrikaner minority group and the opposition parties. The die-hard conservative whites prefer the right-wing press than the NBC. The white business community enjoys listening to the two new private radio stations (Radio Energy and Radio 99) which serve as an alternative voice to the NBC radio services. According to a study conducted by Quantum Research (1995), on the business community’s attitudes towards the NBC, these two radio channels have taken away a large chunk of the white advertising revenue from the NBC. The report reads: “Radio 99 is viewed by the white business community as an up-and-coming station with lively music, catering to the 18-40 age groups. It conveys the image of a popular radio station that everybody listens to. It draws more of our type of market for expensive products … your business type of people. But the NBC Radio is an ideal vehicle for mass market products such as maize meal because it is used by lower income groups across the board” (p.18). This report evidently suggests that nothing run by Africans is good enough. The same report compares NBC television with M-Net, the South African-based commercial station: “NBC TV is now facing competition with M-Net, a subscription service which appears to be creaming off the upper end of the market. The perception among respondents was that anyone who could afford M-Net was watching it in preference to NBC. The people that have money don’t watch NBC. So now you advertise on NBC for a low class audience of which many cannot afford a TV set. The main strength of NBC is in its news slot. It is the time to advertise. Other NBC programs lack interest and do not attract the target market for one to advertise on” (p.20). A senior NBC research official noted that the phasing out of the Afrikaans language from television has rendered Namibians who are not English proficient ineffective in communicating their views on television. The idea of an Afrikaans language television channel as an alternative does not have the needed revenue-generating appeal because of the country’s small television audience. Besides, English is regarded as the language of the future as has been indicated by the data compiled for this study. Furthermore, the dependency of the Afrikaner community on television programs produced in Afrikaans by the SABC is no longer possible, now that South Africa and Namibia have adopted English as the new medium of television broadcasting. However, Afrikaans is still the third choice of television broadcasting in Namibia. When media practitioners in this study were asked to list the second language in which most Namibians would like to receive television news, Afrikaans and Oshiwambo ranked highly. While NBC television is now giving more access to black information sources, a study of program content indicates that the rich and politically prominent blacks appear more frequently than the poor and less politically prominent blacks. However, the race solidarity between blacks that has evolved from the common struggle against apartheid has blinded black Namibians to admit the growing class-divide within their own community. The subtle hegemony of the present ruling class is even denied by the poor whose own conspicuous absence from public institutions is taken for granted. The race solidarity analogy of Namibia presents an inverse conclusion to the class solidarity derived from Bettie’s analogy of Roaxana. She correctly concludes that racial minorities appreciate this television comedy despite the conspicuous absence of minority themes, that are compensated by the comedy’s commitment to feminist and working class themes (ibid.). In line with this analogy is another post-hoc-finding that black television reporters in Namibia are more committed to racial pluralism than to class or political pluralism as indicated by the survey data. Furthermore, the survey data indicate that race is not very often related to television access, compared to politics and class. Neither is the increased coverage of blacks in local television programs perceived by prominent whites in the Democratic Media Holdings as an attempt at reverse discrimination. Even when media practitioners do not perceive race as an issue, none of the media organizations demonstrated sensitivity to the plights of the “country’s own aborigines” (the Khoisan) in a recent clash over land confiscation with the police. About 72 of their leaders were lashed and thrown into jail. Nevertheless, the issue hardly received sufficient coverage in both the electronic and print media. Upon release on bail, the leaders of this ethnic minority, who became the first political prisoners in an independent Namibia, were bitter as they braced themselves for the pending trial. The burden of commitment to pluralism does not rest with the media alone. It sometimes thrives from the initiatives of an informed and socially exposed citizenry “to seek, receive and impart information” (Head, ibid.). For example, the literature revealed that coverage of racial minorities in the USA resulted from the pressure applied by reform movements and local legal institutions (Montgomery, ibid.) on the network television. In Namibia, the efforts of the NBC management team to achieve communication pluralism are not complemented by community initiatives. As an example, the “open microphone” broadcasting format that was used by the NBC television to transmit a function organized by the United Nations on New Year’s eve for youth in the socio-economically deprived community was a bold initiative. For the first time in the history of television broadcasting in Namibia, an open microphone was availed to Katutura residents to be heard on national television in a language of their choice. Some of the youths were very informed about issues such as Aids, national unity, peace and reconciliation. Most of the youths were very proficient in English, which according to the survey results is perceived by the majority of media practitioners, as the most important access-related factor. In terms of class, it is important to revisit three of the theoretical assumptions reviewed in the literature. That media is organized in such a way that it systematically screens out the poor; That class hegemony is normally embedded in prime-time television; That hegemony survives from creating a false sense of pluralism and arguments. Both survey and content analysis data are showing clear patterns suggesting the over-representation of the high-income groups on NBC television. Since the apartheid system had in the past sanctioned blacks (incidentally the poor) from regular television appearance, the patterns of class representation observed in NBC programming reflects the organizational structure of the NBC inherited at independence. The review of literature on Namibia concluded that a class alliance that comprised the Western educated elite and the white Afrikaner middle class hegemony, together formed the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) as an interim regime structure before independence. The alliance opted for the tight control of public broadcasting in its feverish attempt to win Western recognition and to alienate SWAPO and other progressive parties like SWANU. The growing empathy for American culture in Namibia is demonstrated by the increasing demand for US television programs. Local reporters tend to seek Western educated sources, particularly those who resemble American television personalities in terms of: The mastery of American accent sometimes referred to as the “art of speaking English through the nose.” The preference for local television newscasters who read the news with the intonation resembling that of CNN News casters as a testimony to local journalists’ rejection of “Namlish” (English spoken with Namibian accent) on television. It is perhaps important to revisit Himmelstein (1984)’s comment that “The opinions presented by middle-class sources are treated with a certain reverence, while the depiction of everyday experience, with its images of human suffering, frustration, and general despair, is open to question regarding reporters’ motives” (p.285). Furthermore, it is argued in the literature that the emerging shape of most new consumer society results in the marginalization of the poor from television (Muskens, 1990; Butsch, 1981; Murdock, 1991). In Namibia, the results from a focus group consisting of the white business community revealed that they want television programs to focus on the fashionable, the youthful, and the beautiful in order for them to advertise on it (Quantum Research, ibid.). The report clearly suggested that NBC television will lose advertising revenue if it intends to increase the program content indented for low-class audience. A senior researcher at the NBC emphasized ……..

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