A proposed plan by new communications minister Faith Muthanbi to change the Broadcasting Act to give her personal power to fire SABC board members (this is currently the remit of the national assembly), and to reduce the size of its board, has been met with dismay and disbelief by media experts, the opposition and civil society.
“It’s astonishing that Minister Muthambi could propose the kinds of changes Broadcasting Act she did last Tuesday. These proposals as they stand fundamentally undermine the independence of the public broadcaster and bring it ever closer to becoming a State broadcaster,” said Sekoetlane Phamodi from civil society organisation, the SOS Coalition.
“While Minister Muthambi argues that her proposals will assist in stabilising the SABC Board, we need to remember that it was precisely executive interference of this nature that led to the catastrophic implosion of the Ngubane board,” Phamodi said.
The Sunday Times this past weekend published an interview with the new minister in which she detailed her plans. Muthambi, a former member of parliament’s portfolio committee on communications, said the current system made it “tough” to have oversight of the board. She said there was “no provision on how to fire or reprimand a board member” and that it was a “tedious process in the sense that you will have to wait for quite some time, whereas hell is breaking loose”.
Professor Anton Harber, chair of Freedom of Expression Institute and Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits, said Muthambi’s desire to “have great and more direct control over the board of the SABC” was very worrying.
“Many of the SABC’s recent woes can be traced back to the lack of a strong, independent board. To strengthen the political hold on the board is shortsighted and wrong – and perhaps unconstitutional, since the constitution demands that public media be independent,” he said.
The public broadcaster’s board has been fraught with drama for the past seven-odd years. It has had three boards and two interim boards, and a host of issues related to board members. A string of letters – including resignation letters – from previous board members placed the blame for the constant upheaval at board level squarely at the feet of inappropriate ministerial interference, particularly during the reign of disgraced former communications minister, Dina Pule.
Gavin Davis, the Democratic Alliance’s spokesman on communications, says giving the minister “absolute power to hire and fire the SABC board will make the board beholden to the governing party, instead of the people of South Africa. A smaller board will also be easier for the minister to manipulate and control”.
He said the proposal was clearly designed to enable President Jacob Zuma to set up a “propaganda ministry to force feed South Africa a ‘good story’ that reflects positively on his record”.
“Minister Muthambi has done little to dispel these fears, telling Parliament last year that the “media continues to publish negative news on government, disregarding the good service delivery record of government.” Just last week, she said that her Department would tell “the good stories that are not being told’,” Davis said in a statement.
Harber said this plan appeared to be “part of a pattern to confuse the ministry of communications, which should be enabling and protecting public media and facilitating universal media access and empowerment, with the function of the Government Communication and Information Services (GCIS), which is there to communicate with citizens on behalf of government,” Harber said.
“Confusing these two functions is likely to produce bad journalism and bad communication. I would urge the minister to rethink this, and for all citizens to resist it.”
Tuwani Gumani, secretary general of the Media Workers Association of SA (Mwasa), said the SABC should not be used for political “point scoring”.
“In its purest form, a public broadcaster, acting in the public interest is far much more than a political pawn to be abused by the elites, the connected or even a ruling party,” he said. “The vision of a public broadcaster espoused by the ANC through then Secretary General Ramaphosa back in 1992 must be a reference point of note.”
Ramaphosa in 1992, said, “The ANC is committed to public broadcasting which is independent of the government of the day, and which owes its loyalty not to any party, but to the population as a whole. In other words, we propose a broadcast service committed to providing full and accurate information to all South Africans, and one which is protected from interference by any special interests – be they political, economic or cultural.”
“It has been clear that the ANC has leaned very heavily on the SABC to extract maximum benefit from a strangely politically beholden entity whilst it depends over 80% on commercial income,” said Gumani.
“Rather than continue with partisan and myopic party-politicking, the SABC must be strengthened as a generator of public value by improving on its independence to allow it to manage its operations and affairs in the public interest.
“Eight ministers later, a plethora of boards and CEOs, perpetual governance, oversight and financial crises, could never be ‘a good story to tell’,” he said.
Gumani said it was for these reasons that Mwasa believed the SABC should be placed under administration
Ramaphosa, now deputy president of South Africa, recently told the South African National Editors Forum AGM that the media should tell South Africa’s stories, both good and bad. “Tell the stories that are good – and there are many – but also tell the stories that are difficult, painful and troublesome,” he said.
Phamodi said that if the new minister is committed to an independent and stable SABC, and isn’t simply paying lip service to those ideals, she should denounce this proposal altogether. “Her focus should not be in tinkering with the Broadcasting Act but, in line with and to the extent that the Act permits her, ensuring that the recommendations of the Auditor General, SIU and Public Protector are urgently implemented,” Phamodi said.
Harber said that to tell the South African story “properly, effectively and with credibility” the SABC needed to have editorial independence “protected by a strong board which operates at arm’s-length from any undue political or financial influence”.
Gumani said the SABC had pressing “legacy” issues to deal with such as the appointment of a new CEO, COO and CFO. “The proposed measures by the Minister will not receive Mwasa’s support. The SABC must not be turned into a state broadcaster or even a party’s public address system,” he said.
“We should be looking at maximising dividends from a converged communications environment. The move to turn back the technological clock through the separation and creation of distinct ministries of communications and post and telecommunications is short-termist, ill-advised and regressive. The minister may want to consider possibilities of opening her door and taking inputs by others seriously. If we do not do this now in earnest, we will probably find ourselves in the same space as the e-toll saga.”
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