Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Story from BusinessDay website: A pressing need to get Icasa back on track

Anton Harber

ON ITS website, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), the broadcasting and telecoms regulator, manages to list only two “frequently asked questions”. You can’t blame them, because we have stopped asking them the right questions. It is time to pay attention to this body, which is in such a poor state it is starting to outsource its most basic functions.

Civil society activists, trade unions and others concerned about broadcasting have been focusing on the SABC and the plans to fix it. But rotting away at the side has been the organisation that should have been strong and independent enough to protect the SABC when it mattered, and failed to do so: Icasa.

When the SABC started to squander money and make dubious editorial decisions, such as blacklisting certain political commentators or pulling material critical of then-president Thabo Mbeki , Icasa should have been the first body to step in and deal with it to protect the independence of the broadcaster.

But Icasa was absent without leave, most notable for its silence on the difficult issues. It was seemingly unable to use its powers of oversight, and was apparently in thrall to the then minister of communications. Even when the matter was brought before it, in the form of a complaint about the blacklisting issue, Icasa’s complaints and compliance committee declined to deal with it properly, saying it was an internal journalistic matter.

It was the decision of a body trying not to dirty its hands on difficult problems, even though these issues are central to its mandate.

Earlier this year, without much fanfare, Icasa announced that it was not going to proceed with the issuing of long-awaited new regional radio licences and would be appointing outside consultants to assess the bids.

Deciding on and issuing licences is the most basic function of Icasa. If it can’t do that, and do it efficiently, then there is something fundamentally wrong. Bidders spent millions of rands on their applications, only to have them sit around for months gathering dust.

Those licences have still not been issued.

Then there is the fiasco over mobile television technology. It is a complicated saga, but suffice to say that MultiChoice has been testing its technology for more than two years, and managed to launch its service in other African countries, while waiting for Icasa to get to the issue. It had promised to do so before the World Cup.

Now, at the last minute, Icasa is attempting to rush it through, and in the process causing havoc, conflict and potential dispute.

And yesterday it was reported that MultiChoice’s licence application arrived and was accepted a few minutes past the deadline. It may be a small point, but that is the kind of slackness that leads to costly and time-wasting legal dispute.

The problem is that a weak regulator leads to a weak industry. It is almost inevitable that incumbents — who have the legal and regulatory teams, the research and the budgets — get a hold on a vulnerable regulator. Nobody likes a weak regulator more than an incumbent, which is in the best position to exert influence on it.

Those who suffer are the outsiders who want to enter broadcasting, the small players who can’t afford expensive legal action and expansive lobbying — as well as the public, who have a less competitive market, less choice and less dynamism.

A weak and indecisive regulator stifles innovation and boldness in the market, for who wants to sit around for months or years waiting for them to make up their minds?

Parliament is interviewing potential candidates to be new Icasa councillors, including a new chair. It is a chance to get the organisation back on track.

We have learnt time and again that you can have the right structures, and the promises of independence, but unless you have in place the individuals with the strength and the skill to make up their own minds and use these structures effectively, then bodies such as Icasa run into trouble.

- Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University.