CONNECTING SOUTH AFRICA THROUGH PUBLIC BROADCASTING: THE SOS COALITION RESPONDS TO THE MINISTER OF COMMUNICATIONS’ BUDGET VOTE SPEECH.
The Minister of Communication gave her budget speech in parliament on Tuesday the 21st of May. It contains some positive elements but also some elements that are confounding and, quite honestly, deeply frustrating and dangerous. She addressed a range of issues which we outline – each of critical importance.
On the positive side is the prioritisation of the long-awaited ICT Policy Review on the Department’s calendar, but the most concerning extreme is the Minister’s suggestion that she should have power to be able to participate directly in the appointment of members of the SABC board. Not only is this at odds with finding long term sustainable solutions to the crises of the SABC it is also fundamentally at odds with the notion of a public broadcaster and SOS opposes the move in the strongest possible terms.
Broadcasting plays a vital role in entertaining, educating and informing South Africans. It is not only a critical tool in connecting South Africans from all walks of life with one another, but also enables us to engage each other in a national dialogue about how we imagine ourselves as South Africans and what role we can each play in shaping our young democracy. “Connecting South Africa,” therefore, comes as a fitting theme not only for ICTs as a whole, but particularly for broadcasting as we enter into this new digital age which comes with the promise of plurality and diversity of broadcasting services.
Public broadcasting plays an integral role in realising South Africans’ right to access to information and their freedom of expression, two cornerstone rights for real and meaningful participation in any democracy. It is for this reason that we need to work tirelessly in creating an enabling environment for public and community broadcasters to fulfil their mandates and empower South Africans to realise the fullness of their aspirations for themselves and the Country. It is against this backdrop that we would frame our response to the Minister of Communications’ budget vote speech.
Strengthening Institutions Supporting Public Broadcasting
ICT Policy Review Process
With ICT technologies changing at a rapid rate and as they continue to converge, re-imagining our national ICT policy to accommodate these changes and enabling meaningful access to these technologies for all South Africans is a singularly important task for the country. The appointment of a strong, experienced and imaginative panel and the allocation of sufficient resources to support its work is critical for the success of the policy review process.
The Coalition is, therefore, pleased to note the efforts made by the Ministry in financing and kicking off the ICT Policy Review process. Further, SOS commits to supporting and participating in the policy review towards the realisation of a robust, forward-looking and citizen-oriented ICT Policy framework by the 2014 White Paper deadline.
This being said, however, the Coalition is extremely concerned by the Cabinet and the Minister’s intentions to make amendments to both the ICASA and Electronic Communications Acts. While we understand the necessity for some technical amendments to these Acts in order to enable the institutions which they govern to perform their functions, the proposed amendments also seek to make some serious substantive changes to these Acts and policy framework outside of the policy review process.
Some of the amendments include:
• The effective unbundling of ICASA & placing some of its key functions within the DoC machinery;
• The reassignment of ICASA’s CCC from the independent regulator to the Department of Communications;
• The reassignment of spectrum sale and management from ICASA to an entirely DoC controlled Spectrum Management Agency.
Instead of strengthening established as well as constitutionally created agencies by giving them more capacity and resources to fulfil their constitutional and legislative mandates, Cabinet and the Minister propose to seriously erode their powers and independence.
SOS has firmly stated and wishes to reiterate that these proposed Bills should be stayed and the ICT Policy Review process be allowed to proceed. Only once the policy has been updated through a thorough white paper process, should Cabinet proceed with legislative amendments informed by the new ICT White Paper shaped through a transparent and widely consultative process.
The Coalition notes and concurs with the Minister’s diagnosis that maintaining Board and executive stability and compliance with good corporate governance principles remain some of the SABC’s most significant challenges. We are shocked, however, by the Minister’s intention to review the Broadcasting Act and possibly to extend her authority into the appointment process of the SABC Board.
SOS has consistently opposed any executive involvement beyond that which is already provided for in the Broadcasting Act in the appointment of the SABC Board as well as in the Boards appointment of Executive Directors. Though a State-owned enterprise, the SABC is unlike other SOEs because of the function it plays as an institution that promotes and supports our constitutional democracy. Accordingly, being a public and not a State broadcaster, the SABC and its Board must be protected from even the appearance of political (as well as commercial and other) interference or any arrangement which would tilt it in the direction of a State broadcaster, which the Minister’s proposal no doubt would.
Again, in this regard, our firm view is that the Minister must stay any substantive amendments to the Broadcasting Act or the introduction of any Bills that seek to make substantive changes to any ICT institutions and, particularly, those related to Broadcasting until the ICT Policy Review process has run its course.
In addition to this, we must remind ourselves that many of the problems that continue to beleaguer our public broadcaster are not simply linked to who the incumbents in particular strategic positions are, but are systemic in nature and arise out of, inter alia, the corporate structure and funding of the SABC. If anything, SOS strongly believes that the Minister should champion our calls for the SABC to be reconstituted as a Chapter 9 institution to assert and preserve its independence and make it more directly accountable to South Africans. Further, we believe that a thorough cost of mandate exercise must be done and the Minister champion the call for direct public funding to be put into the SABC to enable it to fulfil its public mandate.
The Coalition wishes to acknowledge the huge amount of work that has been done in connecting South Africans through broadcasting. The work done by Sentech in rolling out the expansive digital terrestrial network and ensuring that no community is left behind is testament to its stable and visionary leadership, its efficiency as well as the resource and capacity support it has received through the DoC.
An expansive terrestrial network, however, is only one of many aspects of a successful digital migration. In addition to this, we need set-top boxes (STBs) manufactured and readily accessible to all South Africans, a comprehensive public information campaign and, most importantly, a commercial launch of the migration process just to name a few. Two years ahead of the 2015 International Telecommunication Union migration deadline, many of these have still not been finalised.
We must urgently remind the Minister and her team that any further delays in the migration not only stand to undermine its overall success, but will also frustrate South Africans’ access to terrestrial broadcasting services as a whole.
We note the Minister’s proposal in resolving the conditional access control system issue which, right now, stands as the key hurdle for the appointment of a STB manufacturer. We are, however, concerned that a policy amendment to make the conditional access control system a non-mandatory specification in the STB necessarily obviates the need for interoperable STBs. SOs has repeatedly expressed its concern that STB interoperability has not been driven as a key requirement in the manufacturing strategy despite the 2008 Digital Migration Policy having expressly required it.
SOS is of the view that without interoperability, a vast majority of South African households will be unable to afford more than one STB and, consequently, be cut off from the wide range of terrestrial broadcasting services offered by both subscription and free-to-air broadcasters on the platform.
Non-interoperability further stands to create anti-competitive bottle necks which may impede new entrants’ ability to offer new broadcasting services in the digital environment. If broadcasters are allowed exclusive and unfettered ownership of their own STB platform, they may very well prevent new entrants access to audiences through their STBs and, in an environment which increasingly requires vertical ownership of the entire broadcasting value-chain from content production through to STB manufacture, frustrate any hope of their success to the detriment of broadcast media users.
We call on the Minister to be circumspect in how she resolves the question of the conditional access control system and to prioritise interoperability so that STBs can finally be manufactured and the migration be commercially launched before the end of June 2013 as was promised in November last year.
SOS recognises the value of a STB subsidy scheme in order to realise universal access to broadcasting services for all South Africans. Pleased as we are in the Minister’s announcement that the subsidy qualification criteria have been finalised, we remain concerned about the additional expenses that they may potentially encumber poor households’ access to it.
• Is there a mechanism to exempt from those household getting subsidies from paying TV licenses? We know that those households that qualify for a subsidy cannot afford to pay TV licenses;
• Has due consideration been given to those qualifying but undocumented applicants and has provision been made for them to be documented in order to benefit from the subsidy scheme?
• Does the communication strategy speak to notifying people about the subsidy scheme and how to access it?
Regulating premium content
We would like to commend the minister on her announcement of her intention to give ICASA a directive to investigate and regulate for equitable access to premium content for all broadcasters. This is a bold and sorely needed move which will help to enable the sustainability of existing broadcasters and give emerging broadcasters a fighting chance of survival, ultimately benefitting broadcast media users. The Coalition has consistently made this call which we are glad the Minister has heard, and we commit to supporting her and the regulator in realising this goal.
Enabling a healthy and viable broadcasting sector sits at the heart of connecting South Africa. We must do all we can to ensure that we create a broadcasting system dedicated to the broadcast of quality, diverse and citizen-oriented public-programming which is committed to social justice and the deepening of South Africa’s Constitution.
We will continue to support the Minister in realising this ideal, working together in support of public broadcasting.
The SOS Coalition represents a broad spectrum of civil society stakeholders committed to the broadcasting of quality, diverse, citizen-orientated public-interest programming aligned to the goals of the SA Constitution. The Coalition includes a number of trade union federations including COSATU and FEDUSA, a number of independent unions including BEMAWU and MWASA; independent film and TV production sector organisations including the South African Screen Federation (SASFED); a host of NGOs and CBOs including the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), and a number of academics and freedom of expression activists.
For more information contact:
(074) 690 1023
Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi