The new Public Broadcasting Bill is a seriously flawed document, and should not be rushed through without extensive further discussion, writes Tawana Kupe in The Weekender.  

Tawana Kupe writes in The Weekender:

THE controversial Public Services Broadcasting Bill released last week by the communications department ironically comes as there was hope that the SABC could be on the road to recovery.

The bill, if passed into law , threatens to reverse recent gains, destabilise public service broadcasting and imperil democratic socioeconomic development in our society.

The interim board has done a relatively good job of stabilising the SABC and halting what seemed to be an unstoppable free fall characterised by an implosion of the board, a deepening financial crisis and rolling strikes that could have resulted in a blackout .

A new substantive board fairly representative of society has been chosen in a process that was largely participatory. There is a mix of people with competencies, skills and experience appropriate to governing a public broadcaster. But it has yet to take office and it is unfair to spring a new bill upon it.

An unprecedented opportunity has been created by the fact that there is a new president, government, Parliament and portfolio committee on communications, and a new communications minister and director-general in the communications department . There is thus opportunity and possibility for fresh and innovative thinking informed by learning the lessons of the past 15 years.

Although the government is led by the same African National Congress , the party resolved at its congress in Polokwane to adopt a more inclusive and participatory approach to governance and policy making.

It is really strange that after what appeared to be a “wind of change”, we are presented with a paternalistic, time-restricted process as public consultation on the new bill.

It was released on October 24 and December 7 is the deadline for public comment. Exclude weekends, and the public has only about a month to comment on the complex issues of how we organise broadcasting — a key institution in a democratising and developing society in a globalised world.

In this short time, among the issues the public has to grapple with, is the suggested change in the role of the public broadcaster to a support act for the government’s developmental goals (there is very little mention of the democratic role of the state).

Members of the public also have to decide whether they concur with new funding arrangements, including changes to the tax structure; and new governance arrangements, which place the minister at the centre and enable him to control and at times dictate on content and operational issues.

Radical changes are being proposed and there is limited time to object or concur with them.

As a minister in an African state once said of reforms in his country, these proposed changes — if implemented — would constitute a calculated assault on our democratic freedoms.

Yet the bill also identifies problems that need to be addressed and proposes some good solutions. Some of these problems include the composition of the board, which the bill seeks to improve by removing executive members to separate governance and management structures.

But, as is typical of the bill, one problem is solved and another is created. So while board composition is regularised, irregular and inappropriate powers that are typical of institutional arrangements for state broadcasters are bestowed upon the minister.

The bill identifies the need for assured public funding for public service broadcasting and suggests the need for a public fund.

But then it suggests institutional arrangements and changes to tax policy that have not been thought through or canvassed with other policy makers. It is disappointing that the Department of Communications has drafted a bill that seems in some respects to be a throwback to the predemocratic past, that seeks to retain practices that have proved to be disastrous in the recent past and that offers half-baked solutions.

One would have thought the department would have taken the opportunity to carry out a thorough review of broadcasting policy and regulation in the past 15 years. A process similar to the participatory triple inquiry in the early years of democracy would lead to the development of a new policy framework in the same manner that led to the white paper on broadcasting.

It was only after this process that the Broadcasting Act of 1999 was passed and the broadcasting landscape we have today emerged.

Surely the existence of a plethora of broadcasting laws — such as the Broadcasting Act of 1999, amendments in 2002 and last year , the Electronic Communications Act of 2005 and the Independent Communications Authority of SA Act of 2000 — dealing with the regulatory framework and, in recent times, policy developments to address digital migration and content on digital platforms, requires a more comprehensive approach to broadcasting reforms.

It seems instead that through this bill the department wants to entrench the past and in some instances aspects of our present practices will be consigned to the past. The bill seeks to keep the discredited and unworkable division between what is confusingly called public service channels and public commercial channels. The public channels generate more revenue and are commercially viable while the so-called commercial channels need to be cross-subsidised.

The department should withdraw the bill and go to first principles, which include crafting a participatory policy process from which broadcasting policy will emerge and a bill will flow.

The crisis at the SABC requires urgent measures, some of which are being taken. The crisis of resources and governance in the community radio sector does not require, as the bill suggests, subordination to local government structures.

Broadcasting policy and regulation should be crafted for the long term and not as a quick fix for problems. It should address the roles of broadcasting in a young democracy with challenges of socioeconomic development without abrogating democratic freedoms. The best policy framework should recognise broadcasting is an important means for freedom of expression without which democratic socioeconomic development is not possible.

Key anchor principles must be that public-service broadcasting is possible only if there is institutional autonomy, editorial and programming independence, diversity in programming and adequate long-term funding without control by vested interests.

The best form of assurance that we have genuine public-service broadcasting is independent regulation and accountability to the public — not state control and oversight. While broadcasting should contribute to the developmental goals of a society, it is not a top-down instrument to hasten development.

A more fruitful approach is to envision public service broadcasting as serving the communication, information, cultural and entertainment needs and wants that are integral to SA’s democratic developmental goals.

– Prof Kupe is the dean of the Faculties of Humanities at Wits University and a media studies academic. This article first appeared in The Weekender on 7 November 2009.