South Africa’s new post-apartheid constitution, inaugurated in 1996, contains a comprehensive bill of rights that includes explicit recognition and concrete descriptions of a number of economic and social rights. In 1998, Mrs Irene Grootboom lived with her family and her sister’s family in a shack about 20 metres square in Wallacedene, an informal settlement without water, electricity, sewage or rubbish collection services. Most of the residents had been on the waiting list for subsidised housing for years. Mrs Grootboom and a few hundred others decided to take matters into their own hands and occupied a vacant farm that was privately owned and had been earmarked for low-cost housing. They were evicted through a court order, their new-built homes were bulldozed and their possessions burnt. When a High Court judgment initially granted them government shelter, the government appealed to the Constitutional Court. The Court had to interpret article 26 of the new South African Constitution (Republic of South Africa 1996), which provides that (a) ‘everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing’; (b) ‘the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures (such as policy and programmes) to achieve the progressive realisation of this right’; and (c) ‘within its available resources’. The Court decided to test whether the Cape Metropolitan Council’s housing programme was ‘reasonable’. It found that, while the long-term policies were laudable, because there was ‘no express provision to facilitate access to temporary relief for people with no access to land, no roof over their heads, for people living in intolerable conditions and crisis situations’, the programme was not reasonable and therefore unconstitutional (Thipanyane n.d.).

While commercial media has benefited most from liberalisation, new policy environments in many countries have also sparked a mushrooming of community media, a trend also facilitated by falling technology costs and a substantial decrease in the price of entry into the radio market (see AMARC URL). The community radio movement in Latin America, which has a long tradition, is experiencing an unprecedented expansion, with hundreds of new licences being issued and the number of community stations reaching perhaps 10,000 across the continent. Peru alone has 4,000 community radio stations and Colombia has issued 500 new licences (Gumucio, forthcoming). In Africa, particularly in Francophone Africa (Sow, forthcoming), the growth in community radio has been almost as dramatic, with thousands of community radio stations across the region.

A decade ago, with some exceptions (for example in large parts of Latin America, and in South Africa), television was largely the preserve of industrialised countries and the rich in developing countries. Today, satellite dishes are a prime consumer item in some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the world, particularly the Middle East, where the new channels (most famously al-Jazeera), have profoundly impacted the public sphere in the Arab world, providing spaces for people to gain insight into political and state actions, and engage in debates around them. Educational soap operas, such as South Africa’s award winning Soul City, are broadcast to townships where television ownership is common. In Asia, even among the poor, television ownership is rising exponentially; and in many regions of the world it provides the main source of information for people, particularly in industrialised countries. While there remains a gap in television ownership between rich and poor, and urban and rural, these gaps – at least in terms of access – are shrinking rapidly.