The Broadcasting Act (of 1999) contains many gaps and contradictions. The “Save our SABC: Reclaiming our Public Broadcaster” Campaign believes these are contributing to the ongoing crises unfolding at the SABC.
Some of the gaps include those around the dismissal of board members – board members can only be removed if the board itself agrees. (The Broadcasting Amendment Bill, which was yet to be signed by President Kgalema Motlanthe at the time of writing this piece, attempts to deal with this.)
Furthermore, there are gaps around the appointment and dismissal of the board’s executive members, including the group chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chief operating offi cer. The legislation simply leaves their appointment and dismissal open. And in terms of the appointment of non-executive members to the board, the legislation spells out a Parliamentary process, but doesn’t call for sufficient public participation and transparency. Nor does it sufficiently clarify the sets of skills, experience and representativity needed for a properly functioning board.
The campaign, representing trade unions, civil society organisations and independent producers, is hoping to impact on new SABC legislation. The minister of communications announced in 2008 that a major legislative review process was needed for the SABC, which would lead to the promulgation of a new SABC Act.
“Save our SABC” recently had two days of discussion on governance issues, the potential impact of digital migration and funding issues. The beginnings of a draft civil society position paper emerged; the idea being that this document would be used as a key lobbying document for the new legislation.
Governance issues were hotly debated – and in particular appointments to the SABC board. The idea of an independent panel of experts was strongly mooted and then critiqued. The question is: Who chooses the panel? And how do you ensure the panel’s ongoing transparency and accountability? Then, as an alternative, it was suggested that Parliament sets up a special committee to appoint the board (not the now compromised Communications Portfolio Committee). To bolster this committee’s expertise, it was suggested that civil society groupings and media experts lend support.
Two radically different models were proposed. The first called for a new, consolidated, smaller SABC. It called for the SABC to sell off all its commercial channels and further to concentrate solely on compelling public programming free from advertising. The SABC would fund this programming through the interest on the proceeds of the sales of its commercial stations.
Furthermore, commercial broadcasters would be taxed – the latter, after all, would benefit substantially from the increased advertising revenue that would then be available. In contrast, the second model called for the SABC to remain dominant with all its present and proposed channels. Furthermore, the SABC should keep its mixed public/commercial funding model. However, the SABC should “tame” the impact of advertising on editorial content. Here it was suggested that advertisements should only be broadcast during particular time slots (for example, during entertainment and not during news and current affairs). And to make up for the shortfall, a dedicated grant from government should be accessed, for particular operational and infrastructure costs but not for programming so as to safeguard the corporation’s editorial independence.
On many issues the campaign merely touched the surface. But there is still time: New SABC legislation will only be debated in Parliament at the end of this year or early 2010.
• The Broadcasting Act’s shortcomings contribute to the “crises” at the SABC.
• The “Save our SABC” Campaign has started a process of drafting a civil society position paper, which will be used to lobby for the new SABC Act.
• As part of this process, discussions were held at which it was proposed that:
• Parliament should set up a special committee to appoint the SABC’s board (instead of the Communications Portfolio Committee).
• The public broadcaster should be funded through the selling of its commercial channels and the taxing of commercial broadcasters. Alternatively, the SABC should restrict advertising to particular time slots and the shortfall should be made up by a government grant.
Kate Skinner is the coordinator of “Save our SABC”.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (March 2009).