Its intentions are solid, so why is Icasa failing to fulfil its mandate? Jeremy Daniel and Tanya Farber investigate.
Twelve years ago, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) came into being to regulate the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors in the public interest. Now, many industry role players are either scratching their heads in confusion, or shaking their heads with disappointment at Icasa’s failure to fulfil their mandate.
Earlier this year, the overriding antipathy for this regulatory body came in the form of a submission made by SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition (representing unions, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, community media, the independent film and television production sector, academics and freedom of expression activists). Icasa was accused of “not fulfilling its critical role of holding the broadcasters, including the SABC, to account in terms of their licence conditions and their local content quotas”.
The issue of licensing is not a new one.
As part of its vision statement, Icasa states that: “Top of our agenda at a strategic level, is to continue licensing new operators to level the playing field, and to formulate regulations that will enhance fair competition in these two industries so that consumers and the public in general can have choice, as well as value for money for services that they require.”
However, new entrants into the broadcasting arena are notable only by their absence, and the granting of licences to new entrants has done nothing to shift the dominance of the national broadcaster.
According to Karen Thorne, station manager of community television station Cape Town TV (CTV), the structure of broadcasting in South Africa is deeply dysfunctional.
“Icasa has mismanaged the structure of the broadcasting sector in South Africa,” she explains. “Foreigners look at our picture and see three national and one free-to-air broadcaster, then nothing at a regional level and only a few new stations at local level.”
She is also highly critical of how the licensing of stations has been handled.
“They’ve completely messed it up,” she says. “There’s been no proper due process, and basically anyone can apply for a broadcasting licence.”
This, she feels, has led to a number of organisations getting licences without being truly representative of the communities they should be serving.
In the radio industry, too, there are major concerns around the lack of community representation something that Icasa should be regulating.
The National Community Radio Forum’s charter states that “community broadcasting is broadcasting which is for, by and about the community, and whose ownership and management is representative of the community, which pursues a social development agenda, and which is non-profit”.
Icasa should be the custodian of those ideals, but, says Martin Jansen, director of Workers World Media Productions, the current reality stands in direct contrast to this.
“We are seeing an increasing consolidation in media power and the disappearance of independent voices as the mainstream media comes ‘on message’ and portrays the country in corporation-friendly terms.”
Jansen goes on to explain how financial needs and a critical lack of resources are compromising the kind of work and the character of community radio stations, “especially those located in poor working class communities”, and they are being forced into programming and business decisions that go against the grain of why they were created in the first place.
Thorne agrees when it comes to the landscape of the television industry, and she notes that in many cases, there has been a lack of management expertise at community stations, with the result that they simply fall prey to larger commercial operators once they have failed.
The other major issue – that of local content – has been burning for years. As far back as 1993, before Icasa even came into being, local content regulation was formulated. But only in March 2010, when Icasa was already a decade old, did a comprehensive report emerge. The methodology, say media role players, was deeply flawed.
The SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition says that the report, which was framed by the 2008-2009 cycle, only looked at SABC1 and SABC2 during the month of September 2008, and “in respect of SABC3, part of October 2008, too”.
The coalition also noted that, even within that very limited timespan which Icasa monitored, it only monitored the timeslots between 5am and 6pm every day.
“Unfortunately, Icasa’s monitoring neglected to cover prime time, which is defined in the South African Television Regulations as being the period between 6pm and 10pm,” the coalition says, “and this is problematic as a number of the SABC’s television service licence conditions specifically require local content programming during prime time.”
Notwithstanding all these glaring oversights in the way the report was structured, Icasa’s findings highlighted their own failings over the 10 years before the study was done.
With regard to SABC1, the only programming genre licence condition that the channel complied with during the period monitored by Icasa was education. In the case of SABC2, only the current affairs box could be ticked, and for SABC3, not a single condition had been met in terms of its programming genre or language-related licence conditions during the period monitored by Icasa.
The implications of the regulatory body’s failure to regulate local content and manage the creation of independent voices have far-reaching implications, not the least of which are financial.
The South African Screen Federation conducted an independent survey where they looked at all the content broadcast on SABC1, 2 and 3 between November 2006 and January 2007. Both SABC1 and 2 were broadcasting an average of 14% less local content than the mandate stipulated, while SABC3 fell 10% short of its quota. The study goes on to calculate that, at an average cost of R2 500 per minute for that period, the local industry was losing out on R96 285 000 per month in potential revenue.
So where to from here?
Some stakeholders in this saga still believe in the role Icasa could play.
Kate Skinner, former co-ordinator for SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, claims simply: “Icasa needs to do some introspection. It needs to take on board the critiques of its work that have been highlighted as part of the review. We have called for a stakeholder conference to look in depth at Icasa’s challenges around licensing, monitoring and compliance, and to come up with very concrete solutions to the problems. Icasa should urgently convene this conference.”
And, she adds, “Icasa must launch its Section 67 enquiry into competition issues in the broadcasting sector including barriers to entry for new players.”
Until then, ‘local is lekker’ might be a saying that goes with Chappies and Mrs Balls’ Chutney, but certainly not what’s being dished up from the broadcasters. n
Icasa failed to respond to numerous requests for comment and/or opportunities to reply to the allegations.