Friday, November 6, 2009

SAVE OUR SABC - A letter to the Minister of Communications

Dear All

Please find below the letter sent on behalf of the SAVE OUR SABC campaign to the Minister of Communications:

Campaign Coordinator, Kate Skinner, said that the letter had been sent and thanked everyone for their input.

Kate has noted that the Chair of the Portfolio Committee on Communications, Mr Ismail Vadi, spoke at a Link Centre event held at WITS on Monday. She said that he made some interesting points including the fact that the new Public Service Broadcasting Bill is only a draft bill; has not been tabled in Cabinet and therefore should be seen as part of preliminary discussions on restructuring broadcasting. He pointed out that the Minister of Finance would need to play an important role in this bill since the bill seeks to amend the Tax Act. Thanks to the Link Centre for organising the event.

The interim board reported back to Parliament yesterday. According to media reports, the Board reported that it was pursuing various criminal cases but could not specify the details.

Further to this it reported on the following:

  • It planned to repay all its debts by 2014
  • It will start turning a profit by 2012
  • Over and above the R200 million it was granted by the National Treasury last week, the SABC has applied for a five year government guarantee for R1.4 billion. This will assist the SABC in borrowing money from institutions.
  • The R200 million that was recently allocated to the SABC as part of the budget adjustment will be used for commissioning local content programmes.
  • The SABC's losses stand at R910 million at the end of this financial year.

Minister of Communications
General (Ret) Siphiwe Nyanda
iParioli Office Park
399 Duncan Street

Cc. Mashilo Boloka – Director, Broadcasting Policy

1 November 2009

Dear General (Ret) Nyanda

New Public Service Broadcasting Bill

We share with the Minister the desire that we achieve an effective and efficient SABC that contributes to our Constitutional and democratic dispensation. In that context, the “Save our SABC” Campaign representing a number of trade unions including COSATU, COSATU affiliates CWU and CWUSA, FEDUSA; independent producer organisations including the South African Screen Federation (SASFED); and a host of NGOs and CBOs including the Freedom of Expression Institute, Media Monitoring Africa, the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the National Community Radio Forum; as well as a number of academic and independent experts welcome the fact that the Department is focusing on the critical issue of sustainability of public broadcasting services. However, we believe that the introduction of the new Public Service Broadcasting Bill, 2009 is premature as the proposals first need significant debate and research.

While the Department claims that the Bill does not introduce any fundamental policy shifts (and therefore a review of the Broadcasting White Paper, 1998 is unnecessary) the Bill does indeed introduce major policy shifts:

  • The Bill aligns broadcasting to the “developmental goals of the Republic” and the developmental state. Previously broadcasting was aligned to the Constitution.
  • The Bill introduces fundamental shifts to the broadcasting funding environment. It calls for the scrapping of TV license fees and for amendments to the Income Tax Act, 1962 to ensure that up to 1% of personal income tax is set aside for broadcasting.
  • Also, in terms of funding it introduces a new Public Service Broadcasting Fund to be administered by the Media Development and Diversity Agency. This would require that the MDDA Act is amended. The Fund is mandated to fund a wide-ranging set of issues including the public service division of the SABC, including regional television and international broadcasting services; content development; community broadcasting services; and signal distribution. The MDDA at present funds small commercial and community media and is specifically barred from funding content issues.
  • The Bill introduces far-reaching new powers for the Minister of Communications. The Minister can now issue directives to the SABC and community media on “any matter connected to public service broadcasting” if the entity is unable to “perform its functions as prescribed in this Act”.
  • Previously the SABC was split into two divisions – public and public-commercial. The SABC is now to be divided into three separate divisions – public, commercial and international.
  • Sentech has now been designated as the common signal distribution carrier requiring amendments to the Electronic Communications Act, 2005. (Check!)
  • Finally, and very importantly, community media’s role has now been reconceptualised. A new Charter has been introduced for the community media sector specifying the ways in which the community media sector needs to be organised. Further, the Bill ensures community media forge partnerships with their local municipalities.
These are major policy shifts. They stand to fundamentally restructure the broadcasting environment. The Coalition believes that what is required now is a thorough and in-depth consultation with all stakeholders to chart a way forward. This includes:
  • A review of the White Paper (1998) and a systematic review of the provisions in the Broadcasting Act, 1999 that have proved effective/ ineffective. In particular a review must be done as regards those provisions that have directly contributed to the crisis or proved unworkable, as many of these seem to have been reintroduced in the new Bill.
  • Access to the research done by the Department so as to effectively comment on the evidence-basis for new provisions made in the Bill. This includes research related to the costs of setting up the fund, administering the fund, predictions as to the amounts of funding required by the broadcasting sector, percentages of funding that will be set aside for the SABC’s public division, versus the community media sector, signal distribution and so forth.
  • Finally, we need an indication from the Department that it has in fact received firm commitments from National Treasury that the latter is prepared to amend the Income Tax, 1962 and implement the provisions proposed by the new Bill.

The Coalition is keen to work closely and constructively with the Department in whatever capacity is appropriate to ensure that we have a vibrant, sustainable public service broadcasting system that operates in the public interest. If possible we would like to have a meeting with the Minister to discuss these important issues.

Yours sincerely

“Save our SABC: Reclaiming our Public Broadcaster” Coalition