World Journalists Warn Over "Dangerous" Broadcasting Reforms in South Africa

The International Federation of Journalists today accused South Africa of "dangerous tinkering" with public broadcasting that could bring the country's public service networks under increased political influence.

The IFJ, the world's largest journalists' body, with two member organisations in South Africa, says that draft amendments to the Broadcasting Bill taken with plans to restructure the public broadcaster SABC, could lead to unacceptable political control of broadcast journalism. "Africa's leading democracy puts freedom of expression and media quality at risk by dangerous tinkering with structures that are supposed to guarantee journalistic independence," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary.

The SABC, which turned into a public broadcaster in the mid 1990s, is to be reformed by the end of this year. Amendments to the 1999 Broadcasting Bill plan to split the network into two, one commercial with an Africa-wide satellite service, and another public service for a national audience. Journalists fear the SABC could become a private channel for external consumption and a politically driven State broadcaster at national level.

Most worrying, they say, are amendments to rules that mean submitting programming and editorial policies for "ministerial approval" by the new Management Board, whose members are nominated by the Minister. "This threat of ministerial involvement in the work of journalists threatens standards and quality and must be withdrawn," said Aidan White. "Political interference in the work of public broadcasters is not acceptable.

"The confusion of public service responsibility with the so-called "national interest" - thinly-disguised language for serving the ruling political parties - compromises independent journalism and is a setback for South African democracy."

The IFJ's members in South Africa and the Southern Africa Journalists Association are resisting reforms, warning that they will have a regional impact. "Positive reform is no bad thing," says the IFJ, "but independent regulation of SABC, which is a model for other countries, should stay."