Tuesday, October 12, 2010

SOS press statement on SABC Crisis issues

The SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition

SOS notes with increasing alarm the deteriorating situation at the SABC

12 October 2010

The "SOS: Support Public Broadcasting" Coalition representing a number of trade unions including COSATU, COSATU affiliates CWU and CWUSA, FEDUSA and BEMAWU; independent film and TV production sector organisations including the South African Screen Federation (SASFED); and a host of NGOs and CBOs including the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-SA); as well as a number of academics and freedom of expression activists note the deteriorating situation at the SABC with ever increasing alarm. We note the possibility that the Board may again collapse.

Newspaper reports over the weekend and Monday morning have stated that Board members are asking the Minister of Communications, Siphiwe Nyanda to amend the SABC's articles of association so that an acting CEO can be chosen from outside the organisation. At the moment the acting CEO is Robin Nicholson, an internal executive. Previously newspapers had quoted the Minister stating that he was concerned about the appointment of Mr Nicholson (the current Chief Financial Officer).

SOS does not hold any particular brief for Mr Nicholson but the Coalition believes that the decision to review the SABC's Articles of Association ostensibly to allow for the appointment of an external candidate is flawed on a number of grounds. First, we believe that the reversal of the Board's initial decision to appoint Mr. Nicholson is creating further instability at the SABC. A situation the institution can ill afford.

Second, it gives the impression that the Board did not consider the impact of this reported latest decision but rather responded to shareholder pressure (in contravention of corporate governance principles). If it did, it calls into question whether or not Board members sufficiently applied their minds when taking the initial decision.

Third, although we believe that the Articles of Association should be reviewed to bring them in line with constitutional principles and the new Company Act and King Codes among others, we are concerned that the latest Board proposal seems to indicate a piece meal approach to the Articles rather than the necessary thorough, open and comprehensive review clearly required. The impression that is being created is that these revisions are haphazard and being driven by outside pressures rather than genuine inside requirements. We fear this will bring the SABC's reputation into further disrepute.

SOS believes that the Articles of Association need to strengthen the SABC's institutional autonomy so as to prevent Ministerial intervention in the operations of the SABC, a key safeguard for editorial and programming independence. Further, SOS believes that this should be part of a broader review of broadcasting policy and legislation in the country.

Finally, we would like to emphasise that we believe that these recent problems with the Board are all symptoms of a deeper malaise caused by a failure of oversight by Parliament and appropriate oversight by the Executive which is ultimately affecting audiences' right to be informed.

Crises first emerged close to five months ago in May this year when the Board called on Parliament to consider an apparent breach of the law by some members in unilaterally appointing a Head of News. These issues have yet to be discussed in Parliament, though the Portfolio Committee is saying that it will resume a public hearing on the matters on 19th October 2010. This is long overdue and at least three Board members have resigned over the period reportedly due to the lack of decisive oversight and leadership. According to media reports others are considering resigning as well.

The lack of clear oversight is further evidenced by the fact that Parliament has yet to initiate a process to replace resigned Board members. Board member Barbara Masekela resigned in July 2010 and Magatho Mello in early August. Members have a three month notice period in which Parliament is mandated to replace them. It appears that Ms. Masekela's notice period is almost over.

It is clear from a range of reports (including the SABC's annual reports, the Auditor General report and others) that the crisis facing the SABC will require a concerted effort to resolve. A Board can only deliver on this and ensure audiences can have access to meaningful content if they are given the necessary support to act decisively and then held accountable for meeting their mandate.

The ongoing challenges faced by the SABC make it urgent that the role of the oversight structures is reviewed as well in their handling of the various crises at the SABC.

For more information:

Kate Skinner – SOS Coordinator – (082) 926-6404
Matankana Mothapo – Spokesperson Communications Workers Union – (082) 759-0900
William Bird – Director Media Monitoring Africa – (082) 887-1370