Call for mass media to contribute prime-time airtime for COVID 19 public health messaging

This call is issued by the SOS Coalition and supported by SASFED (South African Screen Federation), Health Justice Initiative, C19 People’s Coalition, People’s Vaccine Campaign, Media Monitoring Africa, Right to Know, the Independent Producers Organisation, Section 27, Open Secrets, and Freedom of Expression Institute.

South Africa is running out of time. While the numbers have dropped due to lockdown for now, a fourth wave is looming. We need to reach herd immunity before that can happen. Recent surveys have shown uncertainty and resistance to getting vaccinated. One of the ways we think this can be tackled is via a mass media campaign, aimed at informing our citizens of the benefits, safety and availability of the vaccine. 

Misinformation, hesitancy, confusion and lack of credible advice is hampering the recovery, leading to needless deaths, economic devastation and ensuring that the virus has reservoirs of unvaccinated individuals in which to create new and more dangerous mutations.

We call on government to ramp up efforts and outreach immediately, putting the scandals and corruption of previous campaigns firmly behind us. However, as media professionals and civil society we believe our mass media outlets, particularly mass communication platforms like television and radio, need to step up in a big way. As license holders of scarce broadcast spectrum, they have not only regulatory obligations but moral ones as well. Airtime in prime slots is the only way to reach the millions of South Africans who we need to persuade to get vaccinated – or we face dire consequences. While some unsold inventory has been donated this is just a first step: these slots are usually at a time when there are few viewers.

The SABC as our public broadcaster bears the greatest responsibility in this regard. But other channels are not exempt. We are very sympathetic to the fact that advertising revenues have fallen but that is no excuse to shirk this duty and let more die. Future lockdowns will also further depress advertising revenues, so it is also in the broadcasters’ own interests to help prevent the coming disaster and donate more airtime to the cause. The GCIS should contribute funds to this effort.

Social media, too, must join the fight. Twitter, for example, does not permit paid communication and advertising that is not officially authourised by government or a few other entities, like the UN. While this is an understandable reaction to misinformation being spread it also prevents non-government communications from reaching people with accurate guidance. Facebook and YouTube should contribute free advertising space to reach more people, more often and more quickly. 

Credible, effective content is already available (for example from the voluntary organisation COVID Comms) and more can be generated quickly. As content creators we can assist. We can offer studios, cameras, edits suits and other resources pro bono. But if that content does not get to reach the majority of the country who say they are unlikely to get vaccinated then it will be useless.

About the SOS Coalition: The SOS Coalition is a member-based public broadcasting network that campaigns for democratic media and broadcasting, as well as excellent programming by the public broadcaster – in particular the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to serve the public interest.

Our purpose is to lobby for excellent programming and ensure the strengthening of public and community broadcasting in the interest of the broader South African community that is solely dependent on the public broadcaster as their primary channel of communication.

Our vision is to create a public broadcasting system dedicated to the broadcasting of quality, diverse, citizen-orientated public programming committed to deepening South Africa’s constitutional values and principles.

The Coalition represents trade unions, independent film and TV production sector organisations, non-governmental and community-based organisations, academics, freedom of expression activists and concerned individuals.