Within days of the first working group meeting of the “Save our SABC” civil society coalition, an urgent new task presented itself. Members of Parliament tabled a Draft Broadcasting Amendment Bill specifically dealing with the removal of individual board members and the removal of the board as a collective. The present Broadcasting Act does not deal with the removal of board members except if the Board itself agrees to the removal of one of its own.
The working group pulled together a written and then an oral submission on the Bill.
The issues put forward included:
• A call for an inclusive, public, consultative process to draft a Green Paper/White Paper leading to the promulgation of a new SABC Act. The Coalition argued that a piecemeal approach to dealing with legislative issues – i.e. tinkering with the clauses on removal of board members alone – was not ideal.
• A set of proposals regarding the appointment procedures. The Coalition argued that the SABC crisis had in fact started with a flawed appointment process. The Coalition put forward a set of clauses ensuring greater public participation and transparency for the future. Further, a set of clauses were put forward to deal with the appointment of executive members to the Board, presently a gap in the Broadcasting Act.
• Proposals related to qualifications, so as to ensure board members are committed to freedom of expression, are broadly representative of South African society and its various interest groups, and have the necessary qualifications and experience. Coalition members had strongly argued that the present SABC Board had an overwhelmingly business, elite bias.
• A set of wide-ranging disqualification and conflict of interest clauses to better safeguard the independence of the SABC.
• Proposals around the appointment of an interim board. At this point in the drafting process the Draft Bill did not include clauses allowing for the removal of the SABC Board as a collective.
The Board could only be removed on an individual-by-individual basis.
However, during the “formal deliberations” on the Bill, a number of new proposals were tabled and adopted by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications and then the National Assembly.
The definition of the “appointing body” was changed so that the appointing body was no longer the President but the “President acting in consultation with the Speaker of the National Assembly”. Further, a new set of clauses were added to allow the Board as a collective to be dissolved. Finally, a new section was added to facilitate the resignation of Board members.
After serious debate, the Coalition agreed that some progress had been made on the Bill – the removal clauses of individual board members were seen as positive, as were the resignation clauses. (The lack of resignation clauses is a further gap in the Broadcasting Act.)
However, in terms of the removal of Board members as a collective, a number of Coalition members expressed reservations. They argued that removing the Board as a whole could potentially undermine the Board’s independence and thus potentially the independence of the SABC as an institution. Legal advice was sought.
This advice pointed to the fact that, although it was not ideal to remove the Board as a whole, the criteria for removal were appropriate. The criteria included the SABC Board not fulfilling its “fiduciary duties”, “not adhering to its charter” and failing to “control the affairs of the corporation”. Further, it was pointed out that the clauses were written in “objective language”. Lawyers argued that this would set objective standards that would ensure that Parliament would have to go through a thorough investigation. To prove their case they would need to draw on court findings, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) resolutions, and so forth.
A number of issues still remained problematic, though. The Coalition decided to take these issues to the next stage in the drafting process – the National Council of Provinces. The Coalition argued that the Bill still did not deal with appointment procedures, the composition of the Board, or disqualification clauses.
Further, it did not deal with the issue of criteria for appointments to the Interim Board. (The Interim Board comes into place if the non-executive members of the Board are removed as a collective.)
Coalition members agreed that due to the fact that the Interim Board needs to be swiftly established, a public process was not required to select the non-executive members of the Board. (The Interim Board will consist of the three executive members of the Board – including the group chief executive officer, the chief operating officer and the chief financial officer, and five others.)
The Coalition, however, insisted that, if this right to public participation was waived, then criteria for these five members must be included. So what is next? Once the Coalition’s work on the Amendment Bill has been completed, it plans to continue to strongly advocate for a comprehensive Green Paper/White Paper process leading to the promulgation of a new SABC Act.
The Coalition plans to start research on all the key issues linked to this, including the implications of new technology for public broadcasting; new funding models; new governance structures (for instance, should Parliament be selecting the Board or an independent panel?); ways of restructuring the SABC (possibly de-corporatising it), and so forth.
Further to this, plans are being explored to re-work the SABC’s Charter. One of the exciting ideas put forward by Coalition members is to launch a road show that will travel around the country asking ordinary South African citizens what they like, dislike and want to see on the SABC.
These discussions will be channelled into recommendations for a new, “publicly-owned” SABC Charter.
From the top
On June 10 this year a significant grouping of NGOs, civil society organisations, trade unions, academics and journalists met to discuss the SABC. At the end of the meeting a decision was taken to form a civil society coalition that would help to resolve its problems.
A working group was set up consisting of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI); the Media Monitoring Project (MMP); the South African chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-SA); the National Consumers Forum; the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union (BEMAWU); and a number of high-profile freedom of expression activists.
The working group undertook to bring on board a number of other key organisations such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). It was resolved to:
• draft a position paper outlining the crisis and some immediate solutions;
• draft recommendations on an SABC Act, including ownership, structure, character and appointment of the Board, funding, Charter and so forth;
• call on the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications to exercise its constitutionally mandated oversight role effectively;
• follow up on the FXI “blacklisting complaint”; and
• initiate the formation of a civil society coalition to campaign for the strengthening of public broadcasting.
The Coalition held its first working group meeting on July 1 to discuss its plan of action and rules for the campaign. A representative from COSATU was immediately coopted onto the working group. The TAC is presently considering membership.
Kate Skinner is the campaign coordinator of “Save our SABC”.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (October 2008).