The “catastrophic and unconstitutional” SABC Bill must be withdrawn, three media organisations have demanded.
SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) collectively made a submission to the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications & digital technologies on 16 January in which they expressed deep concern regarding the contentious bill, which detractors say does nothing to solve the public broadcaster’s funding challenges.
SOS, MMA and Sanef’s first concern is the move to introduce the bill in parliament before the finalisation of a much-needed policy update, in the form of the draft white paper on audio and audio-visual media services and online content safety.
Although this process has been 20 years in the making, the organisations are concerned that the bill is being rushed through with no proper scrutiny and due process; and in a policy vacuum, given the many U-turns and other changes of policy proposals relevant to the SABC.
The process is all the more alarming, they said, considering that the current iteration of the bill is very different from an earlier draft published for public comment in July 2021. Moreover, the public has been deprived of an opportunity to comment on the new bill before it was introduced in parliament.
SOS, MMA and Sanef believe that, given the financial crisis at the SABC, the bill should at a minimum address the public broadcaster’s sustainability challenges.
“The new draft bill offers nothing to mitigate or address the SABC’s dire financial status. Instead, it provides for the minister of communications & digital technologies to take three years to develop a funding framework,” the three organisations said in their submission to the parliamentary committee. “Why wasn’t this done a decade ago? Rather than a solution, this provision sets the SABC up for failure.”
New funding model
They said the SABC requires a new funding model that will ensure government contributes to its sustainability for the benefit of the people of South Africa. The bill also fails to aid the SABC in solving the unfunded public mandate crisis that besets it now.
The organisations are concerned by a provision that subscriptions are envisaged as an additional source of funding for the SABC. “A ‘pay for content’ model akin to that applicable to commercial subscription broadcasting services cannot be a model of public service content provision as it implies that the provision of services is limited to those able to afford them.”
The organisations are also worried that the bill gives new powers to the minister. “Section 6 of the bill is deeply problematic and at odds with the independence of the public broadcaster,” they said.
“The proposed additional powers of the minister to dictate additional functions to the SABC and to remove board members or take part in the board appointment process (particularly that of the subsidiary company) is unconstitutional and makes the institution vulnerable to government and political interference.”
A notion that a commercial division will cross-subsidise the public division, as proposed in the bill, has been a policy failure since inception. Instead of being abandoned, this model is being expanded and replicated – “like using a sieve to catch rainwater”.
The SABC Bill could even undermine the SABC’s editorial independence by again making the CEO the editor in chief of the SABC. “Apart from these two roles requiring entirely different skills sets, this makes the public broadcaster prone to political and other forms of editorial interference.”
Government, they said, has also failed to provide promised research on international best practice on public broadcasting funding models and digital transformation. “This has greatly contributed to the SABC Bill’s regressive and illogical approach and its failure to acknowledge existing court judgments that protect and promote both the independence and good governance of the public broadcaster.”
The organisations submitted that the SABC Bill should not be approved by the committee. Rather, the department of communications should withdraw it and then redraft it, taking into consideration broad stakeholder input.
“It is crucial that ahead of the upcoming elections and beyond, the public broadcaster’s editorial and institutional independence is safeguarded for the SABC to fulfil its role of deepening the country’s democracy.”
National coordinator of the SOS Coalition Uyanda Siyotula said parliament has scheduled public hearings on the bill for 22-23 February. She said the programme indicates that the plan is to finalise the SABC Bill by 20 March. – © 2024 NewsCentral Media