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25 April 2017 10:43 (South Africa)
Opinionista William Bird

SABC in Parliament: Sound and fury, signifying nothing

  • William Bird
    william bird.jpg
    William Bird

    William studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where he obtained his BA and Honours degree in Drama and Film. He worked in television after completing his studies. Unable to resist the lure of media monitoring, William started with some part time monitoring for the Media Monitoring Project, now Media Monitoring Africa (MMA)  in 1995 and after leaving television joined the MMA as a researcher. At MMA William has overseen or been directly involved in over 100 media monitoring projects on subjects ranging from gender based violence, HIV, and racism to children and the media. William has also completed overseeing the data analysis of the biggest civil society media monitoring exercise in the world – the Global Media Monitoring Project. For this project over 100 countries monitored gender around the world. William has also overseen the name change of the MMP to Media Monitoring Africa in 2008. William was appointed an Ashoka fellow in 2009 and also a Linc Fellow in 2010 for his work focused on children’s participation in the media.  He is regularly accessed in the media on a range of media focused issues.  In his twelve years as director of MMA William has helped MMA grow from a small 3 people driven organisation to a committed team of 16 people, with a clear vision and dedicated programme areas.  William’s knowledge of media monitoring and commitment to deepening democracy in South Africa and the continent has ensured his expertise is internationally recognised    In his spare time William likes to monitor the media when not otherwise distracted by his young sons.

The portfolio committee on communication on Tuesday let the entire country down. Despite the overwhelming evidence, they chose instead to spit on South Africa’s intelligence. But for those who forget what democracy means, their day will come.

On Tuesday the portfolio committee on communication spent the day discussing the SABC. It's easy to let the embarrassment of the SABC hearing be dismissed as yet another instance of being let down by parliament, but on Tuesday our public representatives had the opportunity to hold the SABC accountable. They had the power and means to demand answers as to what and who had taken the decision to ban reporting on public protests. They had the chance to find out who took the illegal and anti-democratic decisions to fire eight SABC journalists for trying to do their job. They had the chance to help restore the dignity and professionalism of those within the SABC who believe in public broadcasting and our democracy.

The parliament portfolio committee had the authority to find how in blazes so many new senior positions could be filled with no advertising, no due process or regard for fair labour practice. Our parliament portfolio committee had the opportunity to establish what actions had been taken by the SABC senior management to implement the ruling of ICASA as well as a court interdict on reversing their offensive decision to ban covering public protests. On Tuesday our parliament had the chance to find out what on earth had happened to the last CEO Frans Matlala. Why he was given a golden handshake and sent on his merry way. They might even have had a chance to ask about how it was that Jimi Matthews opted for such a public and cutting resignation. On Tuesday our parliament had the chance to find out just how well or poorly the SABC is doing financially.

On Tuesday they had the opportunity to enquire about the 90% local content policy. They had the opportunity to establish how the SABC had covered the recent elections. They had the chance to address concerns raised by civil society, journalists, academics, analysts, political parties, ordinary audience members and even the ANC. On one or even just a few of these issues our parliament had the chance to do their job and hold the SABC accountable. All the ingredients were there, a minister who has run more interference than a parliamentary jamming device, an incoherent inquorate Board, an SABC management in denial, more evidence than a child with ten YouTube videos showing them caught with their fingers in the cookie jar, as well as clear and unambiguous legal precedent showing wrongdoing.

But despite all these and many more questions hanging over SABC, our ANC parliament portfolio committee members were having none of it.

It isn't just that they missed these opportunities, it isn't just that despite overwhelming evidence they allowed those before them to obfuscate, lie and shirk responsibility. It is that they did so with no shame, with no regard for their role as representatives of ordinary citizens. Had they gone outside and spat in the faces of the first people they came across it would have been less demeaning and offensive.

Instead we were treated to an orgy of conspiracy and denial. Blame was shifted from those seeking to apply pressure to the SABC to civil society organisations who dare to ask questions. Just for the record: as MMA we launched the case against ICASA and the CCC together with our partners, the SOS coalition and the Freedom of Expression Institute. We received no funds from any donor. Aside from covering the fees of a junior counsel - for which we did approach a donor as the money was really needed - all worked on a pro bono basis. No CIA, no other evil western powers, not even a power-hungry dark force capitalist imperialist! This isn't to say we didn't have some influence, indeed all arguments were our own, but based on a wildly controversial document called the "South African Constitution."

Ok. I'm sorry. That was a tad condescending, but I hope given the utter garbage we were expected to swallow on Tuesday from officials in public office, I think I can be forgiven.

What is clear from Tuesday is that our traditional methods of holding those in public power accountable have been captured, or at the very least asked, to use the power of a bag of marshmallows.

The good news, and yes there really is some - is that our courts remain strong, and as we prepare a range of new cases, we can be certain not only of victory but of the triumph of logic over bullshit, of law over illegality, and of the public interest over the interest of the greedy.

We will not lose faith in our parliament, despite their despicable behaviour on Tuesday, for we know that behind the scenes there is far greater support to build our democracy than to undermine it.

The problem now is where to from here. From our side, we will continue to monitor and analyse the media. We are working on new legal challenges and campaigns and while we cannot guarantee victory in every instance, we can promise that we will not give up until we win this battle. What we need from you, the citizen of South Africa, is your support to let those who do a great job in our media know that we appreciate them. We would also ask that you use every personal opportunity to let those who seek to undermine our democracy know that we will not tolerate their behaviour. Our democracy is, after all, for the people by the people, and those who seek to challenge that will find out the hard way.

As for those in senior positions at or overseeing the SABC, I repeat what I said to Mr Motsoeneng and his advisor on the day of the CCC hearing: "It's never too late to do the right thing". That's what built our country and established our democracy. Continue down your chosen path if you must, but you will lose, and you will be held accountable. DM

  • William Bird
    william bird.jpg
    William Bird

    William studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where he obtained his BA and Honours degree in Drama and Film. He worked in television after completing his studies. Unable to resist the lure of media monitoring, William started with some part time monitoring for the Media Monitoring Project, now Media Monitoring Africa (MMA)  in 1995 and after leaving television joined the MMA as a researcher. At MMA William has overseen or been directly involved in over 100 media monitoring projects on subjects ranging from gender based violence, HIV, and racism to children and the media. William has also completed overseeing the data analysis of the biggest civil society media monitoring exercise in the world – the Global Media Monitoring Project. For this project over 100 countries monitored gender around the world. William has also overseen the name change of the MMP to Media Monitoring Africa in 2008. William was appointed an Ashoka fellow in 2009 and also a Linc Fellow in 2010 for his work focused on children’s participation in the media.  He is regularly accessed in the media on a range of media focused issues.  In his twelve years as director of MMA William has helped MMA grow from a small 3 people driven organisation to a committed team of 16 people, with a clear vision and dedicated programme areas.  William’s knowledge of media monitoring and commitment to deepening democracy in South Africa and the continent has ensured his expertise is internationally recognised    In his spare time William likes to monitor the media when not otherwise distracted by his young sons.

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