‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” asked the SABC’s policy head at the final round of its public hearings on the broadcaster’s editorial policies. But media watchdogs could not disagree more with this sentiment.
Media Monitoring Africa told the Mail & Guardian that key editorial issues raised by the MMA have been sidelined by the SABC’s policy team drafting the editorial policies.
One concern was the upward referral rule, where editorial matters are dealt with by executives. The rule has been a particularly contentious subject since former chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng — who was found guilty of bringing the SABC into disrepute in an internal disciplinary hearing in June last year — declared himself himself editor-in-chief and made this rule mandatory.
The 2004 policy states that upward referral enables editorial staff to consult executives, including the chief executive, should difficulties arise during programme production. Under Motsoeneng editorial decision-making shifted out of the newsroom to the executives, in particular to him.
The hearings, which traversed all nine provinces, are part of the public broadcaster’s efforts to review its current editorial policies, which were last amended in 2004. These hearings concluded in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
The 20-odd people attending the Johannesburg hearings raised a wide range of issues: the problem of corruption at Lesedi FM; the SABC’s intellectual property policy, the archiving of “golden oldies”; the SABC’s role in nation-building ahead of the elections; the coverage of minority sports and the violence in local soapies.
A review of these policies began in 2013. The review culminated in the 2016 policies, which were filed with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) that year.
But a complaint lodged by the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition and MMA resulted in the reviewed policies being rejected by Icasa on the basis that the SABC failed to ensure extensive public participation in their drafting.
The SABC’s policy head, Philly Moilwa, said: “It is very difficult to pinpoint where the SABC failed in its public consultations, because this was not prescribed. All the law says is that there must be public consultations but it doesn’t say to what extent.”
If MMA or the SOS Coalition decides to approach Icasa to get the policies withdrawn again, it is likely that the year-long process of conducting public consultations will have to be repeated.
SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said the current policies were drafted after an initial round of public hearings, which took place in July last year. They were submitted to the corporation’s operations committee for comment and concurrence and then sent to the SABC’s board of directors for comment.
The policy review has focused broadly on issues of programming, news, language, equitable access, local content, religious and educational broadcasting.
The draft policies were released online to the public on July 12, ahead of a second round of public hearings set to run from July 23 to 31.
On how the SABC has administered the public consultation process this time round, Kganyago said: “We are happy and comfortable that we have done everything in our power to accommodate everyone.”
But MMA’s head of policy, Thandi Smith, has a different assessment: “To be quite blatant, we were really shocked at how the SABC embarked on its process of public consultations.”
She said the MMA was baffled when it found that the draft policies were 80% identical to those of 2004.
The MMA is one of the 123 organisations and individuals listed as contributors to the draft policies.
The SOS Coalition’s national co-ordinator, Duduetsang Makuse, called the draft policies a “poorly done copy [and] paste job” of the 2004 policies.
In his presentation on Tuesday, Moilwa noted that the policies were never going to undergo a complete overhaul and called the 2004 policies robust and forward-looking.
But, said Smith: “It really is so disappointing that the current policies are starkly similar to the previous ones, especially considering the massive strides made by the broadcaster recently.”
In January the MMA and SOS Coalition welcomed the SABC’s appointment of Chris Maroleng as its new chief operating officer. The organisations supported the move as an effort in “turning around and rebuilding” the embattled broadcaster.
Between the beginning of June and the end of July, the SABC embarked on two parallel commissions of inquiry — one into editorial interference and the other into sexual harassment. When the inquiries were announced in May, acting chief executive Nomsa Philiso said the public broadcaster hoped to emerge “cleansed [of] the first layer of the people issues”.
Motsoeneng’s regime loomed over Tuesday’s hearings, as Moilwa reiterated that the consultations were part of an effort to “restore public trust” in the public broadcaster.
But the audience Moilwa was addressing was noticeably thin. Drawing attention to the near-empty auditorium, he concluded that the hearings ought to be about “quality over quantity”.
The successful 2004 policy review received 920 written submissions. In contrast, this round had received 250 written submissions to date, according to Moilwa.
Smith said the SABC had failed to campaign actively for wider input from the public. Makuse added that the period of public participation was “just too short”.
On Tuesday, Moilwa announced that the deadline for written submissions has been extended to August 31 — a decision that Smith said the MMA welcomed.
On whether the MMA and SOS Coalition would apply to Icasa for a second time to have the new policies withdrawn, Makuse said: “We obviously want to support the SABC’s efforts to turn itself around; however, we will not shy away from holding them accountable.”
Smith added: “If the policies don’t radically change between now and then, we will explore our options. We are in a place where we want to see drastic change.”