THE BIG READ: Don't press 'off' button on positive discussions
Last Monday the ANC published on its website a series of policy discussion documents, including one on communications and the media. There was a fair amount of coverage on the print media section, with some arguing that there was a climb down by the ANC.
While the focus is perhaps understandable, it is a pity there wasn't much discussion on the other sections, specially the broadcasting sector, because there really is a lot in them worthy of noting.
The Communications Discussion document deals with two key public institutions, namely the SABC and the regulator Icasa. Both , and most especially the SABC, have had, to be generous, testing times over the last few years. Instead of offering simple suggestions, as in the 2007 Polokwane Resolutions, of dramatically increasing public funding, this year's discussion document offers fresh, progressive and exciting positions.
On the SABC the document notes that it is a complexity of factors that have lead to the crises, including structural, managerial and funding issues. Far from sweeping the issues under the carpet, the document tackles them head on, saying: "The series of crises at the public broadcaster reflect a lack of leadership, lack of accountability and poor management. In confronting the crisis, more emphasis has been placed on reporting processes without a corresponding attention to holding those responsible to account for the financial and organisational maladministration that has brought the public broadcasting institution to the crisis."
If only we had that level of honesty from the board.
The document notes that there has also been a failure by the oversight institutions. This is a brutal but honest and valuable assessment, and it continues in this line in respect of solutions offered.
The solutions range from restructuring to ensuring the SABC stays up-to-date with technological shifts to improving local content, beefing up oversight and accountability and ring fencing funding for sustainability.
The policy also refers to the importance of a broadcasting policy review: "There is a need to review the broadcasting system and policy framework in its entirety before 2015 to identify the gaps and barriers that have prevented the realisation of some of the important goals as well as plan for new services. This should culminate in a new forward-looking broadcasting policy."
This is a crucial process if we are to develop a vision for broadcasting and if we are to have longer term solutions to existing challenges.
There is a similar focus on the regulator, with honest input on its state and capacity to fulfil its functions.
The document also talks about Icasa being self-funding. While not as extensive, the suggestions around Icasa should also be welcomed as they would address critical needs. Perhaps the only weakness in this regard is that Icasa's independence is not reasserted. It might be argued that it is implicit, but given the disastrous Icasa Amendment Bill , this is a crucial point.
The options presented are things that many of us in civil society, including the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, have been arguing for, especially the broadcasting policy review. So while it may not be popular in some circles, we should welcome these sections because, if implemented, they will almost certainly ensure a better SABC and a more effective regulator, and these are policy suggestions that truly strengthen our democracy.
- Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa