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Parliament pushing through controversial SABC Bill without public hearings should raise alarm

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Justine Limpitlaw is an Honorary Visiting Professor at the LINK Centre, University of the Witwatersrand and is the chair of the Legal Sub-Committee of the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition. Views expressed are her own.

What’s happening with the SABC Bill in the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies should make every democrat’s hair stand on end – particularly given the vital upcoming elections.

The SABC Bill is a shocker, as we have reported before.

When the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies introduced the SABC Bill into Parliament last year, the House did the usual: publishing notices calling for written submissions by interested parties. 

The response was huge: 17 separate submissions, some of which were joint submissions made by two or more organisations. This ought to have been a red flag for the committee. Public responses are generally huge when there is concern over a Bill. 

Remember the outcry over the so-called Secrecy Bill which Parliament pushed through in the face of vociferous opposition from civil society?

Unusually, the submissions were not simply critical of the drafting of the SABC Bill – a majority of the submissions insisted the Bill should not be passed in its current form. Our organisation, Icasa and e.tv specifically called for the SABC Bill to be withdrawn by the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, or rejected entirely by Parliament. 

A number of the submissions asked to be allowed to present at the public hearings.

Public hearings on the submissions were scheduled for 22 and 23 February last week, but were cancelled less than an hour after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced, last Tuesday night, the 29 May election date. 

Industry watchers saw this as a sign that the committee was quietly going to shelve the Bill until after the elections.

We were wrong.

On Monday morning, the committee’s updated draft programme was sent out via email. Sessions on the SABC Bill are scheduled for 8, 14 and 20 March. But with no public hearings. 

Even worse, the last committee meeting on the SABC Bill is labelled “Discussion and finalisation on the SABC … Bill” (italics our emphasis). When a committee finalises a Bill, it means it agrees on the final wording – it’s the last step before the SABC Bill goes to the National Assembly for a vote.

Public hearings do not happen in the National Assembly stage of a Bill’s passage through Parliament; they happen in the committee stage.

The bottom line here is that the committee is indicating that it has decided to dispense with public hearings on the SABC Bill, despite 24 written submissions having been received, many of them from key sector bodies such as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa); the public broadcaster, the SABC; industry body the National Association of Broadcasters; the Freedom of Expression Institute and civil society organisations with a particular focus on the media, including the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, Media Monitoring Africa and Sanef (the South African National Editors’ Forum) – all of which made a joint submission.

In our view, the only reason for the rush is a need to push the Bill through before the elections. And that is a serious red flag.

To recap why this Bill is so dangerous: First, it is being pushed through in a policy vacuum because the Draft White Paper on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services hasn’t been finalised and so there is no actual government policy on public broadcasting. 

It is essential to finalise the policy before the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) rushes an SABC Bill through Parliament.

Second, on the critical issue of a new funding model for the public broadcaster, the SABC Bill kicks for touch – promising only that a new funding model framework (note, not an actual funding model, much less an operational one) must be developed within three years of the passage of the SABC Bill. This is not good enough. 

The DCDT has admitted that it has not undertaken any comparative research on a funding model, much less carried out actual feasibility studies for a funding model even though it has been in a policy development process since 2011 – 13 years.

On the critical issue of editorial independence, the SABC goes backwards. 

The Bill provides that the Editor-in-Chief of the SABC is no longer to be the Executive responsible for News and Current Affairs, as is currently the case in terms of the SABC’s editorial policies, but instead is to be the CEO. 

This conflating of editorial and management is extremely dangerous, and flies in the face of editorial independence principles worldwide. 

We’ve seen this movie before. 

We remember the terrible precedent that was set during the Hlaudi Motsoeneng era when editorial decisions were referred upwards to the CEO, and the unlawful decisions to not broadcast videos of protests erupting at the lack of service delivery during the 2016 local government elections.

The SABC won plaudits for its 2021 election coverage. Why would it wish to remove editorial control from journalists and give it to the CEO? 

We are concerned that it is because the CEO is not a journalist or editor by training, is not steeped in journalistic ethics and good practice and will perhaps be more susceptible to influence in the run-up to the highly contested election.

Linked to this is the last broad area of criticism: the SABC Bill’s provisions establishing a separate subsidiary commercial company to run the SABC’s public commercial services, both radio and TV. 

The SABC Bill gives the minister veto powers over the appointment of board members to this company – a direct flouting of Judge Matojane’s ruling in the SOS and Others v the SABC and Others case. In that case, the High Court cited the need to protect the SABC’s independence as vital for our democracy.

So, where to from here? 

We want two things to happen: First, the SABC Bill must be withdrawn by the Minister or rejected by Parliament. 

Second, we would like to see the same level of DCDT urgency for the SABC Bill being given to the Draft White Paper, now 13 years overdue. 

We have to ensure that we still have a public interest content provider that is fit for the digital age and move away from outdated neo-dictatorial notions of a state broadcaster.

Or is that really what this is all about? The public responses to the fatal flaws in the Bill were overwhelmingly negative. And so Parliament is perhaps simply doing away with public hearings in the hope that people will throw in the towel and not fight to prevent the SABC from becoming a mouthpiece of the state. 

This would be appalling parliamentary practice, flying in the face of every stated commitment to transparency, accountability and independent public broadcasting. It will not stand. DM

Justine Limpitlaw writes on behalf of the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa. 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, to serve the public interest. Media Monitoring Africa acts as a watchdog to promote ethical and fair journalism which supports human rights. We promote democracy and a culture where the media and the powerful respect human rights to encourage a just and fair society.

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  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Our TV licenses fund the national broadcaster, and we are entitled to receive quality, impartial information, not dishonest propaganda that will be used to help corrupt politicians further lie and destroy our country. If I am understanding the inplications of this article then this bill needs to be stopped now.

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