Time to drop TV licence that forces South Africans to fund SABC 'apartheid dinosaur' - think tank

It's time for the SABC to stop charging consumers TV licence fees as part of its funding model, says a researcher.

According to Free Market Foundation researcher Martin van Staden, the SABC TV licence has outlived its usefulness.

"Other broadcasting companies are funded primarily through advertising and subscriptions (as I understand it). In America, for example, there is no 'public broadcaster', yet there is a very dynamic television sector. There is nothing special about the apartheid dinosaur known as the SABC," Van Staden told News24.

Van Staden wrote a Free Market Foundation article arguing for the Broadcasting Act to be amended to eliminate the obligation of paying for a TV licence.

READ: Pay your TV licence. It’s one of the only ways to keep the SABC afloat

The Broadcasting Act's section 27 obliges all South African households to pay for a television licence if they have a TV.

"Failure to be in possession of a valid television licence is a civil offence," says the act in section 27.

Flawed law

The act also provides that the SABC is, among other responsibilities, required to "make its services available throughout the republic" and "provide sound and television broadcasting services, whether by analogue or digital means, and to provide sound and television programmes of information, education and entertainment funded by advertisements, subscription, sponsorship, licence fees or any other means of finance".

Van Staden, who is pursuing an LLM degree at the University of Pretoria, argued that the fact that the law obligates people to have TV licences was flawed.

"The problem is that the law is being employed for something I would argue the law should not be used for. Imagine if Parliament passed a 'Pick n Pay Act' that forced all South Africans, if they own refrigerators, to pay licence fees to Pick n Pay. It would be ridiculous.

"As a free society, we should be allowed to own televisions without paying licence fees to anyone."

The SABC's mandate as a public service obligates it to broadcast in all 11 official languages and, among others, "reflect both the unity and diverse cultural and multilingual nature of South Africa and all of its cultures and regions to audiences", says the act.

However, Van Staden argued that a purely private broadcaster could deliver services to cater for demand.

"If there is a demand for media for small language groups, it will certainly be delivered. DStv, for example, delivers various language services. The Afrikaans component is most developed, but one can see the other official languages slowly but surely breaking into the market."

In the UK, which also obligates people to have TV licences if they own a TV, licence numbers have increased from 24.7 million in 2008 to 25.8 million in 2017, according to the BBC licensing body.

Licence revenue

The SABC said in its 2016/17 annual report that it posted a net loss of R977m, and revenue from licences was R915m, a decrease of 7%.

In the 2018 results, licence revenue was R941.3m, though the SABC cited "high levels of fee payment evasion".

"Why is it the responsibility of the South African people to keep the SABC alive? Why can't the SABC instead ask for donations, or simply compete in the market? Why must the force of law be employed for such an absurd objective? The article I wrote tries to make the point that this, if only bit by bit, leads to a disrespect for the law as an institution."

In the US, the TV news media is largely private and no one is obliged to pay a TV licence.

However, some have argued that this creates an "echo chamber" where people are only exposed to views with which they agree, leading to the polarisation of political debate.

"You might say 'polarisation', which is certainly a fair assessment, but I prefer 'democratisation'. People are not fed what the political class wants to feed them," said Van Staden.

"Recall President [Cyril] Ramaphosa's recent late-night speech that the SABC very eagerly broadcast live to the nation, but then refused to broadcast the official opposition's response.

"In America, on the other hand, consumers have a wide variety of news sources to choose from, according to their preferences.

There is no one single ideological perspective being forced on anyone, which I would consider to be a resounding market success," he added.

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