Criticism of the new Public Service Broadcasting Bill looks simply like fear of change, writes Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda in Business Day. There is no plan to increase government control of the SABC, and the bill is only a draft, anyway.

Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda writes in Business Day:

REACTION to proposals contained in the draft Public Service Broadcasting Bill has been varied and interesting to read. Not only does most of it border on ignorance, but it also appears to have the hidden intention of scaring the public.

Could it be the fear of the unknown? I doubt if this could be the case, because the draft bill is unambiguous about the objectives it aims to achieve. One can therefore also conclude that there’s an element of fear of change. Or is it resistance to change? To bring oneself down to the level of overlooking all the good intentions the draft bill seeks to achieve and instead perpetuate untruths is neither patriotic nor activist.

In my maiden budget vote speech in July, I said the following in relation to this matter: “I have looked at the challenges facing the public broadcaster, which include governance and management capacity. A new vision and mandate for public broadcasting services in line with SA’s developmental agenda is required. The governance of the SABC needs to be strengthened.

"The Department of Communications will therefore amend the Broadcasting Act. The amendment will bring the charter in line with international best practice and ensure that the public broadcaster is best suited to our young democracy. The department will explore an appropriate funding model to ensure that the public broadcaster is not left to the vagaries of the markets.”

In response to this policy pronouncement, my department committed itself to introduce a draft bill before the end of the year and this was submitted as part of the department’s legislative programme for 2009.

Subsequent to this, the department released a discussion paper in July, soliciting input on the vision of public service broadcasting that complements SA’s envisaged developmental state.

A total of 32 submissions were received by the extended closing date. The inputs came from a wide variety of quarters, including academia, industry, labour and civil society, and commented on the various issues contained in the Public Service Broadcasting discussion document.

Areas of interest for those who participated in the process included the public mandate, the charter of the corporation, the current hybrid funding model, the role of the minister of communications and that of national signal distributor Sentech.

The proposed changes to the current Broadcasting Act of 1999 seek to, among other things, align the broadcasting system to developmental objectives of our country.

They take into consideration the rapidly changing landscape, which gives birth to the profound need for the government to position public entities such as the public broadcaster as strategic vehicles to achieve these developmental goals that we have set ourselves.

SA is not the first country to explore the proposed method of funding a public broadcast service. India and New Zealand have been successful in imposing a tax levy to fund the mandates of their public broadcasters.

We have learned through such experiences that an end to a licence fee regime can free up the public broadcaster to focus on its core business: delivering quality and reliable broadcast services to the public.

The draft bill contains as one of its proposals the broadening of the scope for local content. Currently there is no effective monitoring mechanism for the acquisition and usage of local content. The draft bill advocates such a tool.

The proposal for an advisory body on content has also been met with a cold reception in some quarters. Let’s set the record straight. The main and sole responsibility of this proposed structure will be to advise me on issues that relate to content quota and its implementation thereof. The notion being perpetuated that this body will seek to shadow the communications regulator, Icasa, is gibberish. It is the same producers whose interests the draft bill seeks to protect who will serve on the advisory body.

A lot of noise has also been made about the proposal for community radio stations to forge partnerships with their local municipalities. One commentator asserts that this is a ploy to undermine the independence of the community stations. Once again, this is utter nonsense disguised as activism on behalf of the community radio stations.

Community radio stations are in any way funded by the state, and if we were hell-bent on dictating the content they must carry, we would have done so already.

The following points need to be acknowledged as facts in dealing with this matter:

n It is important to note that this is simply a process aimed at getting the nation to provide input on how best the public broadcaster could be resourced to ensure that it meets its mandate of delivering quality, reliable services to the public.

n No decision has been taken with regard to the collection of revenue to establish and sustain the proposed Public Service Broadcast Fund.

n The draft bill raises several proposals on the best possible way of creating a sustainable funding mechanism through which the SABC can efficiently deliver on its mandate.

n The idea of raising funds for the public broadcaster through a tax levy is one of a variety of options being proposed in the discussion document.

n It is also important to note that tax policy resides in the Treasury and any decision that relates to tax matters would have to be taken in consultation with the Treasury. Exploratory discussions have, however, taken place between the Department of Communications and the South African Revenue Service to discuss a possible collection system.

n The present manner in which the public broadcaster raises funds cannot be relied upon. Hundreds of thousands of people do not honour their obligation to pay television licence fees.

This leaves the SABC in a dire situation, in which it has to spend millions of rands on debt collection services in a bid to recover the revenue due to it.

The notion being perpetuated that I am seeking to exert government control over the SABC is unfounded and misplaced.

The role of the minister is to draft policy in consultation with his cabinet colleagues, and not to enforce or implement it.

I understand the importance of independent media that serve as a watchdog for the public, and have no intention of undermining this principle.

We will not be deterred by the naysayers from exploring reliable and sustainable ways through which the SABC can best respond to the needs of the public.

* Nyanda is communications minister. The article first appeared in Business Day on 6 November 2009.