The Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA) recently hosted a discussion forum to examine what has been referred to as the crisis at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Focusing on the theme “Can civil society influence the future of the public broadcaster”, the meeting brought together academics and representatives from civil society to find mechanisms to strengthen the public broadcaster.
OSF-SA, Executive Director, Zohra Dawood pointed out that the purpose of the gathering was not only to discuss the crisis facing the SABC, but to provide an opportunity for civil society to articulate their vision for the South African public broadcaster.
The crisis at the SABC has manifested in a number of ways including:
The highly publicised accusations of blacklisting
The suspension of Head of News, Snuki Zikalala
The suspension Group Chief Executive, Dali Mpofu
Significantly, the OSF discussion forum took place a few days after the Johannesburg High Court denied the SABC Board leave to appeal a decision that declared the suspension of Mpofu, unlawful.
The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) cautioned that viable solutions to the SABC crisis would only be possible if the root causes of the current situation were analysed.
FXI Executive Director, Jane Duncan, said: “It seems fair to say that the SABC has been beset with instability for some time now.” She believes this could be attributed in part to the fact that the SABC has always been and remains a hybrid beast: part commercial broadcaster, part public broadcaster, constantly vacillating between the two roles.
Responding to this, International Freedom of Expression and Media Consultant, Jeanette Minnie, spoke about the history of civil society campaigning for independent broadcasting in South Africa. She noted that the SABC is currently in a situation whereby it is controlled by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Illustrating this, Duncan asserted that the conflicts over the coverage of Jacob Zuma relative to Thabo Mbeki, the Mbeki documentary, and the so-called ‘blacklisting saga’, all suggest the development of a culture of deference within the SABC.
Minnie referred to the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting (CIB), which recommended a greater role for civil society to in the appointment of SABC boards The CIB fought hard for the recognition of the principle that broadcasters should be free of government control and also to ensure that the SABC Board's mandate is derived from the public and not from the government.
In the same vein, University of Witwatersrand’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Tawana Kupe, pointed out that SA civil society should learn from other countries in order to inform their position on the public broadcaster. Kupe also urged delegates to critically reflect on the successes and failures of the SABC in order to find solutions to address the crisis.
Taking the process forward
Delegates formed a coalition to campaign for the strengthening of public broadcaster in the country. The coalition is comprises a range of civil society, media groups, labour unions and the public. The coalition plans to invite ANC alliance partner, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), to support to the campaign. It noted that COSATU was not happy with the current SABC Board. The Broadcast Electronic Media and Allied Workers Union (BEMAWU) has given the campaign a thumbs-up.
In a joint statement, the coalition declared that it takes the crisis at the SABC as an opportunity to recommit itself to the established and agreed principles of public broadcasting. The coalition will work to promote a public broadcaster that is independent from government and political influence.
The discussion forum concluded with the coalition passing six resolutions including, in the short term:
To draft a position paper on the legal and organisational structures of the SABC drawing lessons from the crises experienced;
To identify options to deal with the crises affecting SABC management, SABC board and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications;
Draft recommendations on an SABC Act including ownership structure, character and appointment of the board, executive management, funding, Charter and so on; there already is legislation that governs the SABC … is the SABC Act something new or are they talking about amendments to the current legislation?
Call upon the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications to exercise its constitutionally mandated oversight role effectively;
The coalition will also follow up on the blacklisting complaint lodged by the FXI with ICASA. In 2007, the FXI complained that the blacklisting constituted a violation of the SABC's licence conditions, the Broadcasting Act and the Constitution. Their complaint was later dismissed by ICASA.
In the medium term the coalition will initiate a policy review process which it hopes will lead to a new communications policy which reinforces independent regulation and public broadcasting principles.
Kate Skinner, an Independent Consultant, is coordinating the campaign together with the Media Monitoring Project and FXI.