Saturday, October 31, 2009

Controversial Public Services Broadcasting Bill - SOS Initial Comment

The following article from Business Day on the new and highly controversial Public Services Broadcasting Bill - which was launched to an SOS Round-Table on Thursday for comment. SASFED was present and worked with SOS on quickly reviewing the bill which plan to completely replace the Broadcasting Act of 1999.

The news by Nyanda?
PUBLISHED: 2009/10/31 08:30:54 AM

TAXPAYERS should contribute at least 1% of their personal income tax to fund the development of broadcasting, the new Public Service Broadcasting Bill proposes.

The bill, published this week for comment, also scraps television licence fees, gives substantial power to the communications minister over the SABC board and “any entity identified in the act” if it’s believed they are unable to perform their functions .

The draft legislation, which controversially went directly from a discussion document to a bill, is being presented as an amendment to the present Broadcasting Act of 1999. But Kate Skinner, spokeswoman of the Save Our SABC Coalition, says it is “a complete repeal of the Broadcasting Act”.

Members of the coalition— among others the Freedom of Expression Institute, Media Monitoring Africa, unions in the broadcasting sector and academics — met in Johannesburg on Friday to discuss the bill.

Skinner says they decided to appeal to Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda for more time to make submissions. The department has asked for public comment by December 7.

“The bill is a major shift from the previous legislation,” she says. “It is not an amendment but a complete repeal of the existing legislation and outlines what they want the broadcast environment to be. The inclusion of a broadcast fund is a brand new idea.”

Nyanda described the bill in his b udget s peech in June as “a new vision and mandate for public broadcasting services in line with SA’s developmental agenda”.

Skinner says the coalition is concerned about several aspects of the bill, and plans to ask the ministry for information or research that contributed to the decisions.

“The new bill aligns the public broadcasting to the developmental state, rather than the c onstitution as in the past,” she says.

“This could mean the state sets the agenda for what is required and means that the broadcaster would be less independent.

“The bill does not define what a developmental state is.”

The coalition is also concerned about a proposal that the Media Development and Diversity Agency manages the broadcast fund. “It’s a very small agency at the moment and will be dealing with hundreds of millions of rand ,” she says.

“We want to know how it will operate — issues like governance and independence of the fund would have to be addressed and it would need to be substantially strengthened.”

Skinner says that the bill gives Nyanda “significantly” more power than the Broadcasting Act does. “The minister may direct any of the entities specified in this a ct to take any action pursuant to the Public Service Broadcasting Bill if the entity is unable to perform its functions as prescribed in this a ct,” it reads.

“The minister may, subject to this a ct and the Electronic Communications Act, instruct the board to take any action specified by the minister if the c orporation is: in financial difficulty or being otherwise mismanaged; has acted unfairly or in a discriminatory or inequitable way towards a person to whom it owes a duty under this act or a related a ct; failed to comply with a directive given by the minister under the a ct; or has obstructed the minister or a person authorised by the minister in performing a function in terms of this a ct.”

Skinner says the role envisaged for Nyanda shifts the SABC “towards a state rather than public broadcaster”.

She says interested parties will need much more time to review the bill than the government is proposing.

“This is the first time we have had any idea where the government is going. The g overnment went straight from a discussion document to a bill.”

She says what isn’t clear at all in the bill is how the government envisages business’s contribution to the broadcast fund.

On Friday afternoon, the SABC sent out a statement warning the bill still had to undergo a public consultation process and various legislative processes before it became law, and South Africans were required to pay their licences until notified otherwise.

“Payment of TV licence fees remains in force, and any person or entity in possession of, or using a television set will still be liable for payment of licence fees in terms of current legislation,” the SABC’s statement reads.

The SABC said that it was engaging with the Department of Communications on the “formulation and finalisation of the envisaged new Public Service Broadcasting legislation”.

Efforts to obtain comment from the Treasury or the Department of Communications on the tax implications of the bill and changes required to the Income Tax Act were unsuccessful.

Treasury spokeswoman Lindani Mbunyuza referred questions to the Department of Communications, which did not return calls.

It was also not clear whether the minister would consider requests for more time to respond to the new legislation.

Apart from areas highlighted by the coalition, the Public Service Broadcasting Bill also proposes the transfer of Channel Africa to the international broadcast service; provides charters for the SABC and community broadcasting services; and introduces a performance management system for the board.

The bill also outlines the mandate of Sentech, the state- owned company that carries radio and television signals for SA’s terrestrial broadcasters.

Sentech, which has long complained that it is underfunded, has been accused of a lack of strategic planning and a failure to deliver on its mandate of prioritising services to rural areas.

The bill stipulates that Sentech must ensure universal access to broadcasting services by rolling out the transmitter network prioritising rural areas, maintaining a robust transmission network, and carrying public and community broadcasting at reasonable costs.

Sentech must also provide transparent mechanisms for its tariff structure and the company may borrow money on the approval of the minister in consultation with the finance minister, the bill proposes.

The company was criticised recently in court papers filed by challenging its high charges for services.

The funding model for the SABC has occupied the government for some time.

During his budget presentation in Parliament, Nyanda said an appropriate model would need to be set up to ensure that the public broadcaster was not left to the “vagaries of the markets”.

A task team of Department of Communications and Treasury officials and business turnaround strategists was established to help the SABC and to consider Sentech’s strategic thrust.

Nyanda told MPs during his budget vote speech in Parliament that the new Public Services Broadcasting Act would bring the SABC charter into line with international best practice and ensure that it was best suited “to our young democracy”.