At a meeting with the SOS Coalition on Friday, the minister of communications announced that a broadcasting policy review will be launched. With the SABC lurching from crisis to crisis over the last few years, it's about time something is done to fix our public broadcaster. By THERESA MALLINSON.
On Friday afternoon the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition met with minister of communications Roy Padayachie, to present its views. The SOS Coalition (originally called Save our SABC), was formed in 2007, to lobby for the “strengthening of public and community broadcasting in the public interest broadly, with the aim of ensuring excellent programming for South African audiences, particularly on the SABC”. Members include a broad swath of interested parties, including trade unions, industry organisations and NGOs.
Given the turbulence at the SABC over the last few years, SOS clearly has quite a bit of lobbying to keep it busy. It strongly opposed the 2009 draft Public Service Broadcasting Bill, to solve the problems by increasing direct government involvement. “The thing that was interesting about it (the bill) is that it was trying to tackle the crisis at the SABC head on, so it came up with some fairly bold ideas. If you were coming from a government perspective, (seeing) the SABC lurching from crisis to crisis, (with) current structures unable to solve it; (it) needed government to step in and solve these problems,” said William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, part of the coalition. “Effectively it gave government extraordinary powers. The only one who had more powers than the minister was Superman, and that was because he could fly.”
As such, when the bill was withdrawn in November 2010, SOS welcomed the decision and particularly Padayachie’s commitment to launching a comprehensive policy review. The coalition has been waiting to hear more since. At a press conference on Thursday, SOS co-ordinator Kate Skinner said the ministry indicated it would like to listen to SOS’s concerns. “They know we’ve been pushing for a policy review process incredibly hard,” she said. “The agenda (of Friday’s meeting) seemed like it was quite open, with a lot of space for us to shape it, which I have to say we were happy about. It felt like we were being heard, because we’ve put out a lot of letters, and requested a meeting on numerous occasions.”
There is a multitude of problems at the SABC, and SOS has neatly packaged them into five main areas. These are:
1. The lack of a coherent vision for public broadcasting in South Africa;
2. The legal structure of the SABC, which is a public company with the minister as sole shareholder;
3. The lack of clarity around the SABC’s oversight and governance structures;
4. The SABC’s funding model (80% advertising; 18% licence fees; 2% government); and
5. The SABC’s culture of secrecy and lack of accountability.
Friday’s meeting between the minister and SOS showed government was committed to fixing these. The minister announced that a broadcasting review would be undertaken, with a white paper ready by 2013. SOS is meeting with him again this Friday to propose suggestions about the formation of the panel that will conduct this review, as well as specific areas that should be addressed in terms of content. The 2013 deadline will allow time for all issues to be exhaustively examined, previously a 2012 deadline had been suggested and SOS had been worried this would not be sufficient time.
SOS stated the coalition fully supported Padayachie’s commitment to getting the review on the road, so to speak. “We believe this is a crucial process long overdue and we fully support the minister’s process of being thorough, transparent and as broadly consultative as possible,” Skinner said. “We are optimistic that, if the process is followed, we will have a strategy that will not only develop public broadcasting, but will also see policy made for our digital future.”
However, Bird is concerned that there are no current plans for the Independent Communications Authority of SA Amendment Bill to be relooked. “At our meeting on Friday, I specifically asked the minister about the bill,” Bird said. “That bill effectively strips the power from Icasa in a fundamental way; it’s deeply problematic. Looking at an institution that’s not functioning effectively, it delegates all that power to the minister.”
But given the openness with which the department of communications is welcoming input, it doesn’t seem completely out of the question this bill too will be redrafted in the next few years. In general, Bird commended the manner in which Padayachie was taking action. “At last we have a minister that sees the value of broadcasting to South Africa, unlike some previous ministers who seemed to treat it as their fiefdom, rather than something of national significance,” he said. DM
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