SABC debate: We do not want a state broadcaster

A monolith The SABC’s building in Auckland Park  PHOTO: leon sadiki
A monolith The SABC’s building in Auckland Park PHOTO: leon sadiki

The proposed Broadcasting Amendment Bill has generated staunch resistance, as government is accused of returning the SABC to apartheid-era practices. Both sides state their case

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 post-apartheid 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 electronic-communications law consultant and a visiting adjunct professor at Wits University’s Link Centre

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