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Back to the future for SABC

South Africans were justifiably proud of their track record in establishing a system of broadcasting independent of government and party-political control in the early Nineties. It was the first country that pioneered a process of transparent public nomination of candidates for appointment to the board of the public broadcaster (the SABC) and to the board of the broadcasting regulator (now called Icasa).

The point of public nomination of these boards was to avoid the appointment of political confidantes and to ensure that these institutions would serve the public at large. The political independence of the broadcasting regulator was even enshrined in the Constitution. Section 6(3) of the Broadcasting Act of 2002 defines the status of the SABC as follows: ”In terms of this Charter, the Corporation, in pursuit of its objectives and in the exercise of its powers, enjoys freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence as enshrined in the Constitution.”

But the political independence of the SABC has been incrementally undermined to the point where the disputes of the ruling ANC party form the backdrop to the weekly soap opera pitting the SABC board against its management.

This picture is not what many of us had in mind in late 1992 when we formed a mass movement known as the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting (CIB) to lobby for an independent public broadcaster and an independent broadcasting regulator. We envisaged a non-partisan panel of ”the great and the good” (such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu) who would manage the public nomination processes of the SABC board and Icasa and who would appoint those boards.

This is indeed very close to the extra-parliamentary process that was followed in the appointment of the first independent board of the SABC in 1993. Keep in mind that this board was constituted almost a full year before the first historic non-racial democratic election of 1994.

Those were revolutionary times. Many of us marched more than once from the city to the portals of the SABC in Johannesburg, sat in committee and broader coalition meetings, wrote letters and made numerous phone calls. We carefully managed a disparate group of civil society, cultural and media organisations and a disparate group of liberation movements and political parties — for the purpose of freeing our country from state and political control of the media. Our declaration emphasised that ”independent control and regulation of the SABC are the only guarantee against improper interference in public broadcasting by the ruling party, now and in the future”. How prescient that was.

That declaration was signed by Z Pallo Jordan on behalf of the ANC, by Charles Nqakula of the SACP and by Jay Naidoo of Cosatu. It was also signed by the Democratic Party and the campaign even received support by way of a letter from the PAC signed by then deputy president Dikgang Moseneke. I carefully filed these documents. Now I look at them with a sense of sadness, for the revolution has not been televised.

Sixteen years later we are back at the starting block and a new mass campaign is needed again to reclaim the SABC for the public. At a meeting convened in Johannesburg on June 10 it was decided to form a new public coalition to address mid and long-term reform issues at the SABC. A working committee was established involving the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), the Media Monitoring Project, Misa-South Africa, the Broadcast, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu), the National Consumer Forum, as well as three media legal, academic and freedom of expression experts.

Despite our big dreams the government continues to control the SABC in the following ways:

  • The government pays only a fraction of the budget of the SABC (2%). The SABC’s budget is mainly generated from advertising (77%) and licence fees (18%). My media freedom colleagues elsewhere on our continent cannot fathom how we lost control of the SABC as a public sphere when the government does not even fund it.
  • Despite the government not controlling the SABC through allocation of state funds, it has nevertheless ensured its control by corporatising the SABC in 2004. The state is the 100% shareholder of SABC Limited — the official name of the company — and the minister of communications determines the company’s memorandum and articles of association. In terms of these articles the board of the SABC cannot appoint the three executive directors — it can make recommendations only to the minister. This includes the group chief executive, the chief operating officer and the chief financial officer. They form part of the SABC board.
  • The Broadcasting Act of 2002 obliges the SABC to account for its finances to the minister, who accounts to Parliament.
  • After public nominations and hearings, the parliamentary port-folio committee on communications recommends the non-executive board members of the SABC to the state president, who makes the final appointments. The state therefore also exercises final control over the appointment of the other board members. Even more worrying are the reports that the ANC party headquarters played a decisive role in determining the members of the SABC board. If true, such action would in all likelihood have been illegal.
  • It would appear that only the state president has the authority to remove the whole board or a group of members of the board. Parliament cannot do so — or it would have done so by now, following its recent vote of no confidence in the board.

The new campaign will draft a position paper on salient issues on the legal and organisational structure of the SABC and identify options to deal with the immediate crisis affecting SABC management, the SABC board and the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications. It will also make recommendations on a new SABC Act and intends to follow up on the blacklisting complaint lodged by the FXI with Icasa. It also wants to initiate a broader media policy review process that reinforces independent regulation and principles of public broadcasting.

We will invite other organisations and members of the public to join the campaign. People make history — it doesn’t just happen.

Jeanette Minnie is an independent freedom of expression and media consultant

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