Two influential civil society organisations have questioned President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that he has split the communications portfolio into two separate entities. One, headed by former spy chief Siyabonga Cwele, is the Telecommunications ad Postal Services ministry, and the other retains the Communications Ministry, but its scope has broadened to include overarching communication policy and spreading government information, publicity and branding of the country abroad. It would continue to oversee the country’s biggest media company, the SABC as well as the broadcasting regulator, Icasa. A relatively unknown politician, Faith Muthambi, who sat on parliament’s portfolio committee on communications, but has no formal training in the broadcasting and ICT sectors.
The SOS Coalition (SOS) and the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) believe the move by Zuma will not only further fragment the ICT sector in the age of convergence, and destabilise it just as it was finding its feet under “hardworking” former minister Yunus Carrim, but also impact on the rollout of digital terrestrial television, already way behind schedule.
SOS co-ordinator Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi said South Africa “desperately needs a broadcasting and ICT sector that is stable, encourages innovation and puts the needs of people before profit and State control”.
R2K said that by conflating communication policy and government propaganda Zuma is “signaling an intention to ensure various institutions will be used to amplify government propaganda rather then to create a democratic communication system for all South Africans”. The creation of the telecommunications and postal services portfolio shows government had put profit before people and privacy”, R2K said.
Getting rid of Carrim was an “absurd” decision, SOS says, especially in light of the fact that the ministry, “beset by scandals”, had gone through five ministers in five years. SOS said Carrim was a “singularly stabilising force in the Ministry, demonstrating effective and visionary leadership, particularly in his efforts to speed up the long-overdue digital migration process that has been retarded by long-standing conflict between broadcasters and electronics manufacturers”.
Carrim should have been permitted to see his “bold plan of action to release the blockages in the migration process and give people better access to better broadcasting services. Indeed, this is another case of moving five steps back to move one step forward for broadcasting”.
R2K said it was particularly concerned that the communications ministry would be formed out of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), the SA Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA). “These are all bodies which have degrees of statuary independence from the Executive. They all have critical mandates to defend and advance our constitutional rights to freedom of expression and access to information,” it said.
“We must now face the risk that the Ministry of Communications will be used to further weaken the regulatory capacity of Icasa and further undermine the already questionable independence of the SABC, all in service of creating a communication environment compliant to the needs of government messaging, rather than one which best serves the information needs of the people.”
R2K is particularly concerned over Cwele’s appointment. The man, in his former job, drove the controversial Protection of State Information Bill and was responsible for a 170% increase in communications interceptions through the RICA system, R2K says. It said during Cwele’s stewardship of state security “there have been growing concerns about the use and misuse of interception of communications”.
The Democratic Alliance agrees, calling Cwele’s appointment a “chilling move”. “Cwele in charge, indicates government’s intention to control the internet, its various platforms and electronic surveillance,” said communications spokeswoman, Marian Shinn.
“This is the very same Minister who spear-headed the introduction of the controversial ‘Secrecy Bill’ and went to great lengths to cover-up the Nkandla scandal. This move makes it clear that President Zuma is intent on controlling the message of his government’s failures and bringing about the rebirth of the Apartheid-era Information Ministry,” said Shinn.
“Furthermore, the splitting of the Department of Communications into two ministries shows that the ANC clearly sees government’s role in the communications sector as one of message control rather than economic enablement.”
Shinn said South Africa should expect more secrecy and more cover ups during Zuma’s secon term. “With President Zuma’s loyalist on the one hand and propaganda machinery on the other, we can expect more gate-keeping and general interference of media freedom,” she said.
SOS said the reorientation of communications ministry “not only has the practical implication of undermining the constitutional and statutory imperative to have an independent and people-centered public and community broadcasting sector, but also subverts the ANC’s own policy resolutions which have been consistently adopted in successive policy conferences and promised by high-ranking office bearers including the incumbent Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, as far back as in 1992”.
The SOS Coalition asked:
- Does the strategic reorientation of the Communications Ministry mean that the captured SABC will be forced to buckle under the call for 70% “good” news?
- Should the vulnerable and contested community broadcasting sector brace itself for assumption into the State machinery instead of being beholden to the communities they serve?
- Is there any hope for ICASA to be given the institutional independence, power and teeth it so sorely needs and is required by the Constitution and legislation to truly be a regulator for the people?
“All of these institutions and, particularly the SABC, have been under assault by both political and commercial forces for years, and with no intervention from government when it mattered most,” SOS said.
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