Thursday, July 1, 2010

From Screen Africa: Retain Icasa's independence

Angela van Schalkwyk, Editor, ScreenAfrica, 1 July 2010

While there are many worthwhile changes in the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa's (Icasa) Amendment Bill that has just been gazetted, the Bill also seeks to give the Minister of Communications more power to interfere.

The good parts of the amendments are the clauses which ensure that Icasa operates more efficiently. For instance, a finding in an inquiry must be made within 90 days and not 180 days as stipulated previously. Turnaround times for the Complaints and Compliance Committee are also to be improved. The Committee must commence a hearing within 45 days from the date the complaint is lodged and make a finding within 60 days from the date the complaint is lodged and not 90 days as before.

But also to be found amongst all the legalise of amendments to the Act, is the introduction of new powers for the Minister. These relate to the following: Icasa must implement policy and policy directives as issued by the Minister; the Minister "must when appointing the chairperson and councillors" assign their primary responsibilities; the chairperson and council must "perform such functions as the Minister may determine, subject to prior notification being given to Parliament"; the evaluation of councillors "must be conducted by the Minister, in consultation with the National Assembly" and the Complaints and Compliance Committee members are to be nominated by the Minister in consultation with Parliament.

The Minister is a member the ruling political party and in this capacity cannot be independent of the interests or agendas of the government. Icasa is an important regulatory body with powers to determine how the media should operate. If Icasa is subject to interference by the Minister, then it will bring into question its ability to act independently in matters of public interest. Broadcasters in many African countries are dictated to by their governments and consequently freedom of expression is undermined and new opportunities for establishing media business is stifled.

The danger is not that ICASA is incapable of making the right decisions; the danger is that political interference will compromise its integrity and independence.