South Africa's print media needs to urgently transform or risk becoming irrelevant, the ANC said on Thursday.
"The danger of not transforming is that newspapers risk becoming irrelevant," said African National Congress communication committee chairperson Lindiwe Zulu.
"That irrelevance would kill the basic rights that have been fought hard for."
Zulu and ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu made a presentation to the Print Digital Media Transformation Task Team, which is holding public hearings on improving and transforming the media industry.
Zulu said the ANC had noted realities in print media such as monopoly, anti-competitive behaviour, lack of diversity, and decreasing investment into newsrooms.
"Print media needs to transform in ownership, control, management and editorial range."
Ownership was concentrated in a handful big companies. The present situation was not different from pre-democracy print media, said Zulu.
"Perskor and Nasionale Pers dominated the Afrikaans market, Caxton dominated the knock-and-drop market, while Argus and SAAN were in charge of the English market."
Mthembu said the Media Development and Diversity Agency needed to be strengthened to help diversify the media.
"The issue is what needs to be done to ensure that community newspapers and radio are viable."
He said the government was the biggest spender when it came to advertising.
"All spheres of government need to advertise in smaller operations. We advertise in big newspapers and find that a community cannot afford to buy such a publication."
Zulu said countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Australia had begun to look at the negative impact of the media on democratic processes.
There was an urgent need to speed up the process of finalising the Print Media Charter.
The task team is headed by former City Press editor Mathatha Tsedu, and was established by Print and Digital Media SA in August to help the media industry develop a common strategy for transformation.
It is examining issues such as ownership, management, employment equity, skills development, and the low level of black ownership in many large media groups.
It was established after Parliament's portfolio committee on communication criticised the print media sector and called for a transformation charter. It is scheduled to complete its work by the end of April 2013.
The task team said on Monday that the public hearings would be indefinitely postponed on Thursday as the Times Media Group had informed it on Friday that it was pulling out of the process.
"Times Media Group is the second company of the major four to do so, citing an on-going investigation by the Competition Commission into anti-competitive behaviour," the task team said in a statement.
Caxton pulled out of the hearings in January, also because of the Competition Commission investigation.
The commission is probing the alleged sharing of markets and information by Caxton, Naspers, Times Media, and the Independent. They were informed of the probe in December.
The allegations of anti-competitive behaviour first surfaced at a Competition Tribunal hearing in March 2012 about a proposed merger between Media24 Ltd, Paarl Coldset, and the Natal Witness Printing and Publishing Company.