We do not want a state broad­caster

CityPress - - Voices - Jus­tine Limpit­law voices@city­press.co.za

In the 1980s, PW Botha was no­to­ri­ous for phon­ing up the head of news at the SABC to com­plain about an as­pect of the 6pm news he didn’t like. Be­cause of this, the of­fend­ing piece was then not re­broad­cast dur­ing the 8pm news. The ANC was highly crit­i­cal of the then SABC, right­fully scorn­ing it as a “his mas­ter’s voice” broad­caster. Con­se­quently, the ANC’s call for the SABC to be trans­formed into a proper pub­lic broad­caster was highly in­flu­en­tial at the sem­i­nal Jab­u­lani Con­fer­ence about post-apartheid me­dia that took place in the Nether­lands in the early 1990s – the first step in the trans­for­ma­tion of the SABC from a state to a pub­lic broad­caster.

It has been 21 years since our tran­si­tion to democ­racy and since the said trans­for­ma­tion of the SABC. The key ques­tion that now arises is: Is the SABC be­ing trans­formed back into a state broad­caster?

One look at the Broad­cast­ing Amend­ment Bill, which was in­tro­duced in Par­lia­ment ear­lier this month, makes it clear the an­swer is a re­sound­ing yes.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Faith Muthambi, with Cabi­net’s bless­ing, has put for­ward a bill that makes it abun­dantly clear that gov­ern­ment wants to­tal con­trol of the SABC by hav­ing to­tal con­trol over the ap­point­ment of the broad­caster’s board.

In vi­o­la­tion of South Africa’s obli­ga­tions un­der nu­mer­ous res­o­lu­tions of the African Com­mis­sion on Hu­man and Peo­ples’ Rights – for ex­am­ple, ar­ti­cle 6 of the African Prin­ci­ples on Free­dom of Ex­pres­sion Dec­la­ra­tion, which pro­vides that “pub­lic broad­cast­ers should be gov­erned by a board which is pro­tected from in­ter­fer­ence, par­tic­u­larly of a po­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic na­ture” – gov­ern­ment has de­cided to amend the Broad­cast­ing Act to:

Re­move Par­lia­ment en­tirely from the pro­cesses of ap­point­ing and re­mov­ing the board or in­di­vid­ual mem­bers of the board;

Do away with the pub­lic nom­i­na­tions process for board mem­bers, fur­ther re­mov­ing pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion and in­volve­ment in this key na­tional in­sti­tu­tion; and

Put the min­is­ter of com­mu­ni­ca­tions firmly and un­am­bigu­ously in con­trol of all mat­ters to do with the ap­point­ment and re­moval of board mem­bers in­di­vid­u­ally and of the board as a whole.

The pub­lic re­sponse, as ev­i­denced on so­cial me­dia and in press re­ports, has been loud and im­me­di­ate – view­ing the bill as un­ac­cept­able, un­demo­cratic and un­con­sti­tu­tional.

This is what Craig Wil­liamson, the no­to­ri­ous apartheid spy and se­cu­rity po­lice­man, said at the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion (TRC) hear­ings into the me­dia about the role of the SABC dur­ing apartheid: “The state was at a dis­ad­van­tage be­cause it did not own or con­trol any cred­i­ble print me­dia. It coun­ter­acted this by its use of ra­dio and tele­vi­sion.” I hear an odd echo… Fur­ther, in its con­clu­sions of its in­quiry into hu­man rights abuses com­mit­ted by the me­dia, the TRC found that “the SABC [was] … a di­rect ser­vant of the gov­ern­ment of the day”.

The moves to bring the board un­der to­tal con­trol of the ex­ec­u­tive take us straight back to the SABC be­ing the ser­vant of the gov­ern­ment of the day.

Those of us with ac­cess to Twit­ter, the in­ter­net and DStv will ask: “Who cares? I don’t watch it any­way.” Well, we should all care – very, very deeply. Sim­ply put, our very com­mit­ment to con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, in­deed to democ­racy, is pred­i­cated on a cit­i­zenry mak­ing in­formed vot­ing choices at the bal­lot box.

The SABC is hugely in­flu­en­tial. Ac­cord­ing to the All Me­dia and Prod­ucts Sur­vey data, more than 83% of the South African pub­lic tune in to SABC ra­dio sta­tions and more than 89% watch SABC TV. With in­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion be­ing be­low 50% in South Africa, there are sub­stan­tial num­bers of peo­ple who rely on the SABC for most, if not all, of their news and in­for­ma­tion.

So un­less cit­i­zens have ac­cess to a di­ver­sity of views through the SABC, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to news and cur­rent af­fairs, they can hardly be said to be mak­ing “in­formed” choices at the bal­lot box.

Our Con­sti­tu­tion recog­nises our need and right to re­ceive in­for­ma­tion and ideas, and for broad­cast­ing to be reg­u­lated “in the pub­lic in­ter­est” to “en­sure fair­ness and a di­ver­sity of views broadly rep­re­sent­ing South African so­ci­ety”.

The pub­lic will be aware that gov­ern­ment and the SABC have suf­fered heavy losses in the courts re­cently.

Civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions have launched court pro­ceed­ings to chal­lenge the power Muthambi has con­ferred on her­self to veto po­ten­tial ap­point­ments of ex­ec­u­tive mem­bers of the SABC board and to chal­lenge her as­ser­tion that the board may fire its mem­bers who have been nom­i­nated by the pub­lic and rec­om­mended for ap­point­ment by Par­lia­ment.

The costs in­volved in these lit­i­ga­tions are enor­mous, but a crit­i­cal prin­ci­ple is at stake.

It may seem that who sits on the board is hardly crit­i­cal when so many more ob­vi­ous crises are to hand: a junk credit rat­ing, no text­book de­liv­ery, load shed­ding, Nkandla. But who sits on the board de­ter­mines what is shown on our TV screens.

If one is un­der any il­lu­sion about whether the SABC is well on the way to be­ing a state broad­caster, con­sider that pub­lic funds were used to make Min­ers Shot Down, which went on to win the 2015 In­ter­na­tional Emmy Award for Best Doc­u­men­tary. Or­di­nar­ily, an award-win­ning film by a black di­rec­tor and pro­ducer, funded by gov­ern­ment, would be flighted im­me­di­ately on the SABC.

Why is the doc­u­men­tary be­ing kept away from the ma­jor­ity of South Africans, who rely on the SABC for their news and in­for­ma­tion?

Sim­ply put, it is be­cause it presents dev­as­tat­ing and shock­ing facts about the Marikana mas­sacre and the roles played by our politi­cians, our po­lice and se­nior cor­po­rate of­fi­cials.

And, more sim­ply put, gov­ern­ment does not want South Africans to know about this, so the SABC sim­ply re­fuses to broad­cast it – keep­ing us all in the dark about the worst mas­sacre in our postapartheid his­tory.

We have to wrench the SABC back from the brink and re­store it to be­ing a pub­lic broad­caster – our fal­ter­ing demo­cratic tran­si­tion de­pends on it.

Limpit­law is an elec­tron­ic­com­mu­ni­ca­tions law con­sul­tant and a vis­it­ing ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Wits Univer­sity’s Link Cen­tre

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PHOTO: LEON SADIKI

A MONO­LITH The SABC’s build­ing in Auck­land Park

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