Radical broadcasting Bill is too rushed

The new Public Service Broadcasting Bill tabled late last week calls for fundamental changes to the broadcasting landscape. These include new funding models that would see the TV licence fee scrapped and amendments to the Income Tax Act introduced to allow up to 1%of personal income to be set aside for broadcasting.

Although the department of communications claims that the Bill does not introduce fundamental changes and therefore does not require a major policy review, members of the “Save our SABC” Coalition—representing unions, civil society organisations and industry bodies—beg to differ. We think that the Bill requires review, not only at the level of broadcasting policy but also of national finance policy.

First, the Bill aligns public and community broadcasting to the “developmental goals of the republic” and the “developmental state”.
Previously, broadcasting was aligned to the principles of the Constitution. Also, the Bill does not define “developmental state”, a highly contested term. It can be defined in ways that encourage top-down government-led development or more bottom-up, participatory development. So which is it?

Second, the Bill calls for fundamental shifts to the funding environment including, as mentioned, amendments to the Income Tax Act. This means that the Bill calls for changes to national treasury policy, because since 1994 it has specifically opposed earmarked taxes.

Further, the Bill calls for the introduction of a new Public Service Broadcasting Fund to be administered by the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA). This requires that the MDDA Act be amended. The new fund would be mandated to fund the public service division of the SABC, including regional television and international broadcasting services, content development, community broadcasting services and signal distribution, among other things. The MDDA at present funds small commercial and community media and is specifically barred from interfering in “the editorial content of media”.

A concern is that the Bill does not define criteria for the MDDA’s allocation of funds and instead calls for these to be drafted at a later date by the MDDA in a process that “may or may not include public hearings”. The Bill is also virtually silent on accountability, independence and governance matters regarding the new fund despite the fact that it would without doubt be one of the most powerful institutions in the broadcasting sector.

Third, the Bill introduces far-reaching new powers for the minister of communications that represent fundamental changes in the relationships between the minister, the independent regulator and the SABC. These changes potentially shift the SABC towards a state broadcaster role. The minister could, for example, issue directives to the SABC and community media on “any matter connected to public service broadcasting” if the entity is unable to “perform its functions as prescribed within the Act”.

Non-performance is widely defined and includes institutions not adhering to, for example, legislation, being mismanaged and experiencing financial difficulties. And the minister would also have new powers to manage the performance of members of the SABC board.

Finally, community media’s role has been completely reconceptualised. A new charter has been introduced for the community sector (as it has for the SABC) specifying the ways in which the community media sector needs to be organised. The Bill ensures community media forge partnerships and share information with municipalities, a potentially worrying provision because it could lead to community media structures becoming mere extensions of local government’s communication arms.

These are the policy shifts—shifts that would radically transform the broadcasting landscape. There is no way around it; the deadline for comment is December 7 and the Bill is to be tabled in Parliament by February. This is just too rushed. And what is the rush? We need access to the research done by the communications department to assess the basis of evidence for the new provisions.

Also, most critically, we need a review of the White Paper and a systematic review of the present Broadcasting Act, 1999. In particular we need a review of the provisions that have directly contributed to the SABC’s governance crisis (such as the ministerial appointments of executives) or proved unworkable (the splitting of the SABC into commercial and public divisions), as many of these seem to have found their way back into the new Bill.

The coalition is keen to work closely with the department of communications. Together we need to ensure that we have a vibrant, sustainable public service broadcasting system that operates in the public interest. Sufficient time for debate is the starting point.

Tawana Kupe is dean of humanities at Wits University and Kate Skinner is coordinator of “Save Our SABC”

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