South Africa comments on South African Broadcasting Corporation' s draft editorial policy
(MISA/IFEX) - The following is a 25 June 2003 submission by MISA's South Africa chapter on the South African Broadcasting Corporation's Draft Editorial Policy:
INTRODUCTION TO MISA-SA
The Media Institute of Southern Africa - South African chapter (MISA-SA) is a non-governmental organisation with members in eleven SADC countries. MISA focuses primarily on the need to promote free, independent and pluralistic media as envisaged by the Windhoek Declaration.
MISA-SA welcomes the opportunity to respond to the issues contained in the SABC Draft Editorial Policies document in as far as they relate to freedom of expression, media diversity, pluralism, editorial independence, universal access and dissemination of information.
The SABC's Draft Editorial Policies document emerges at a time when public broadcasters throughout the world are faced with an assortment of problems ranging from fragmented audiences, intense competition and limited cash flow. In countries such as South Africa, this can largely be attributed to macro-economic liberalization policies that have changed the shape of the industry considerably. The Draft Editorial Policy document has to be interpreted as an outcome of regulatory factors. Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act (Amended 2002), requires the SABC to develop policies that will guide it in the delivery of its public broadcasting mandate. As further prescribed by the Act (section 6:5.6),
The board must ensure that there is public participation in the development of the policies referred to in subsection (5) by inviting and considering public comment on such draft policies and by other means. This document can therefore be seen as an attempt by the SABC to involve the public by allowing them to respond to the draft policy document.
Notwithstanding the imperatives driving its origin, MISA-SA welcomes this document because it provides a link between the public broadcaster and the South African public. It further allows the public to express its views about and openly participate in the affairs of the SABC. Therefore, it is important that the public broadcaster takes this document as necessary dialogue with the public, notwithstanding regulatory requirements. We would like to point out that this document and a process of public participation is long overdue. This has to be stated in view of the desperate and yet unheard pleas of the ordinary public regarding the broad issues that the document raises. These are, in essence, critical principles to democracy that MISA-SA has strongly advocated for many years since its formation through its different chapters in the SADC region. It is therefore relevant that they form the foundation of the SABC's editorial policies.
However, we are gravely concerned with the manner in which some of these issues are dealt with. It is this concern that our response wants to address. Our response will deal with the following: editorial responsibility, programming policy language policy, local content policy, paid broadcasting as formulated in policy on religious broadcasting, the process of dealing with programme complaints, monitoring and implementation of the various policies.
We are deeply concerned about the proposed upward referral system and mandatory referral to the Group Executive. It is, in our view, an attempt to deliberately compromise the editorial independence of the editors and journalists. While the Draft Editorial Policy document duly acknowledges the essence of time in journalism and programming, we are concerned that the SABC would even consider a system that would clearly violate fundamental principles of editorial independence and compromises the South African public's right to receive and impart information. The system might have worked elsewhere, but it does not mean that it can be unconditionally applied to the SABC. If implemented, the upward referral system will not only limit the judgement of the editorial staff and journalists, it will unnecessarily delay the dissemination of information to the public. An unintended consequence might be that the fear of losing one's job (as a reporter) might supersede ethical principles of journalism or the corporation's overall editorial codes. The unstated implication is that if a news article is considered to have had "major financial, image, or public response implications" the reporter concerned will be suspended and eventually fired. This will undoubtedly take away the innovation and the risks in accommodating programmes that fulfill the SABC's public mandate as stated on page 9.
The MISA-SA position is that:
Editorial policy and decision-making in all broadcasting institutions should be free from interference by government or the governing board;
The editorial policy of public broadcasting should follow agreed standards of political fairness and impartiality. However, these should not be set down in such detail as would interfere with editorial independence;
Editorial independence means the right of journalists and editors to make decisions on the basis of professional criteria consistent with international standards, such as the respect for human rights and privacy, the newsworthiness of an event or its relevance to the public's right to know and in accordance with international codes of ethics for journalists.
Our position is not unique, and is also supported by the African Charter on Broadcasting which advocates the editorial independence of the public broadcasters.
The SABC has over the years made an undertaking that its programmes will reflect the interest of the public. This is confirmed by the statement: "To meet audience expectations is our priority. In this we also create an environment that respects the freedom of expression provisions of our constitution, and encourages our programme makers to explore, innovate and to take risks in accommodating programmes that fulfill the SABC's public mandate" (p.9). This undertaking is strongly complemented by the principles that guide the SABC's approach to programming. However, has the undertaking been adequately fulfilled or have the principles guided the programming policy to serve the South African public fairly? Since the beginning of 2003, the number of suspension cases of personnel at the SABC has risen alarmingly, which somewhat implies that there is a price to pay for the innovation, independence and risks that programme makers have or bring to the organisation. These suspension cases contradict innovation and risks in accommodating programmes that fulfill the public service mandate that inform the policy. In essence, the cases instill fear amongst other programme makers that they may lose their jobs. As the programme makers become fearful, their responsibilities of informing, educating and entertaining the public becomes compromised.
Another key issue relates to the proliferation of commercial imperatives which seems to override the SABC's programming policy. Although the commercial influence is vehemently denied by the Draft Editorial policy document, it is confirmed by the following: the heightened repetition of programmes particularly in television, the increase in movies and music videos depicting scenes of violence and nudity, the streamlining of journalistic activities and the annual programme reviews undertaken by the public broadcaster. These examples attest to the fact that the SABC screens material that will draw advertisers and revenue. Another form of repetition occurs in the news department where the journalistic activities have been streamlined. Although the SABC offers news services for radio stations and television channels, the difference between them in terms of content is too minimal. Thus, the same news content that is on SABC 2 and SABC 3 on Afrikaans and English news at 19h00 respectively will be repeated on SABC 1 in Nguni languages at 19h30 and then on SABC 2 in Sotho languages at 20h30 PM. The cases represent the broadcaster's attempt to save costs on the one hand, and further show how repetition defeats the concept of diversity that the Draft Editorial document advances on the other.
The influence of commercial imperatives can further be seen in the scenes of violence and nudity and offensive language that continue to dominate the programmes of the SABC. While appreciating the warning signals provided before the showing of these scenes, MISA-SA feels this does not solve the problem that there is too much violence on our television. It may seem that for the SABC there is nothing wrong showing violence and nudity as long as they are screened outside the watershed period or primetime and with early warnings indicated. The warning signs prior to the showing of these scenes does not only shift the responsibility of the SABC's actions to the parents who have to regularly monitor and select what their children have to see, it further implies that violence and nudity are good because they sell. As it is often the case parents are not always able to monitor their children's viewing patterns. This scenario has made monitoring difficult. The only possible and unpopular solution is barring children from watching television, a step that will deny them access to information. Recent cases have demonstrated that even if the parents succeed in monitoring what their children watch on television, they can still watch it outside their homes. This is further compounded by the fact that, as a free-to-air service, there is no secret pin code which parents could use to lock the channels that air nudity, sex or violence.
As the public broadcaster, we think the SABC undermines the objectives of its establishment as enshrined in the Broadcasting Act 2002 (amended). Thus, the public broadcaster should contribute to the moral fibre of the society. It should, as required by the Act, provide significant news and public affairs that are not influenced by commercial interest. To minimize sex and nudity, copy-edited versions of these movies and music videos should be purchased as is done in United Kingdom and the United States where these materials come from.
To this end, these recent cases demonstrate that the idea that SABC's programming is not influenced by commercial imperatives is misleading. In view of the situation described in our introductory paragraph, MISA-SA is not totally opposed to commercial drives to sustain the SABC. Instead, we are opposed to the commercial imperatives overriding the public interest. Therefore, we support a balanced view that considers both the commercial factor and the public mandate.
MISA-SA welcomes the idea that the SABC embraces the constitutional duty to treat all the official languages equitably, and with equal respect, including Sign, the Khoi, Nama and San languages. The radio portfolio is doing well in this regard with its linguistic-oriented services. However, the current picture in television seems to be increasingly shifting from this goal. The following concerns should be addressed:
Limited time allocated to sign languages. Thus, outside the headline news at 18h00 and Hand Prints on SABC 3, no other translation or interpretation is provided for Sign languages users. This, undoubtedly denies the users the language access to the programmes and news services at the SABC. Although programmes such as Generations and Sewende Laan are subtitled, it may seem the intention is only to reach people who cannot speak and understand either Afrikaans or African languages rather than Sign languages users. Therefore, to fulfill the universal access policy, improvement should be made in this regard.
Offensive language. At a time at which South Africa is grappling with moral degeneration, we expect the SABC to play a leading role as the public sphere. Therefore MISA-SA recommends that whether in music videos or lyrics, offensive language should be edited. While the SABC may not do this task on its own, negotiations with the record companies have to take place. This would result in the production of edited and unedited videos, CDs and cassettes of those that use offensive language. Given the role of the public broadcaster as a conduit through which this music is transmitted, the record producers will adhere to the call.
Guidelines for equitable treatment of languages. Drawing from the existing scenario, this is a misleading guideline to adopt. As an example, Xhitsonga, Tshivenda, Siswati and Isindebele have been considered as the most marginalized languages. In an attempt to cater for them on television, the SABC has scheduled them in the late hours of the afternoon (between 17h00 and 18h00) during weekdays when it switches to regional services. In terms of the argument as contained in the document, this suggests that the speakers of these languages are available during this period. Well, the fact that this occurs shortly before the commencement of the prime time implies that this is a pure commercial decision- because- "these languages are considered to be not attractive to the advertisers".
The above as contained in the language policy undermines the country's Constitution and section 6 of the Broadcasting Act (amended) on the equitable treatment of all languages.
LOCAL CONTENT POLICY
The content of the SABC television has become foreign in a way that it alienates the same people that it wants to serve. Of the ten programmes aired on SABC 1 on Tuesday 3rd June 2003 between 17h00 and 23h00 only Generations was could be counted as local content. Outside the Nguni language news at 19h30, the rest of the programmes were: Days of our lives, The bold and the beautiful, The tribe, My wife and kids, The Bernie Mac Show, New York Undercover and Gideon's crossing (Sunday Times Magazine, 1 June 2003). The current local quotas for specific programmes require the SABC to have 50% and 40% on television and radio respectively as a public service broadcaster. Its commercial services should be 35% for television (once the commercialisation process is completed) and 25% for radio. The local music content quota for public service is 40%. While indeed the SABC might be in line with these required quotas, MISA-SA believes that as a South African public broadcaster drawing some of its revenues from the public through licences, is unfortunate. The SABC is short-changing the ordinary public. As Karen Siune (1998: 19) contends, "if one is going to ask the public to pay a licence fee, one has to have a good grounds to say that the programmes of these broadcasters are in the public interest". ICASA's quotas are just minimum requirements which can be exceeded.
POLICY ON RELIGIOUS BROADCASTING
South Africa is a country where some religions have been either marginalized or sidelined. This was further exacerbated by the apartheid policy which not only ensured that some religions were enforced on the majority of the South Africans, but they were sponsored by the State. This placed the diverse religions in South Africa on an unequal economic footing. It is therefore important in the interest of nation-building, religious equity and reconciliation that the SABC should not promote nor elevate one religion at the expense of the other. Although the SABC has made strides trying to achieve this goal, the paid broadcasting for purchase by religious groups is a disturbing factor. Given the historical context where the above prevailed, it will serve to perpetuate the economic dominance of certain religions; only economically strong religions will be able to purchase airtime. This is further compounded by the SABC's right to reject or accept and offer to purchase airtime which has not been clarified. The clause might raise conflicts as those religions whose offers to purchase airtime have been rejected may feel discriminated against. If the public feels that paid broadcasting for religious programmes is good for the SABC, we then recommend that in the interest of transparency, the criteria for accepting or rejecting a programme should be publicized for public scrutiny.
DEALING WITH PROGRAMME COMPLAINTS
Section 6, Broadcasting Act 2002 (amended) requires that the Corporation must provide a suitable means for regular inputs of public opinion on its services and ensure that such public opinion is given due consideration. MISA-SA believes that due consideration will be inhibited if the process is as tedious as the one outlined in the Draft Policy document. The process should be shortened to ensure that the complaints reach the management as soon as possible, rather than travel in through a bureaucratic chain. The shorter process will ensure efficiency and accountability while the complaints will be dealt with quite quickly.
MONITORING AND INMPLEMENTATION OF THE VARIOUS POLICIES
The Draft Editorial Policies document may be a starting point for the public to have access to the SABC, but the non-committal stance that it evokes is a point for concern, particularly in relation to programming and language policies. This can be seen in the following:
Matters taken into account when striving to achieve equitability in languages, inter alia, financial and other resources for programmes in each of the languages;
Tedious process of dealing with programme complaints;
Steps of dealing with offensive language, nudity and violence, particularly on television;
How the SABC wants to deal with fairness, objectivity, impartiality and balance.
While it is important to acknowledge that it is obviously impossible to please everyone all the time, the non-committal tone suggests that even if the SABC flouts any of the clauses within the document, it should not be bear the responsibilities. The structure that ensures compliance with the content of the policies is too vague.
MISA-SA strongly recommends the rephrasing or complete erasure of the following clauses as they may be open to abuse. Their inclusion in the document undermines the same principles that inform the editorial values of the SABC outlined in the document.
"or the SABC to give every side of an issue the same amount of time" (p.20).
Agenda-setting theory proves that the time allocated to an issue determines its degree of shaping public opinion. In brief, allocating too much time on one issue and not the other, might be construed as a deliberate attempt to take sides. This undoubtedly contradicts the comparable prominence principle which appears below.
"South Africa's apartheid past, and individuals' experience in contesting and living under it, also accentuates differences that could create unfairness and partiality, or conception of such bias". (p.20).
While this is undeniable fact, it should NOT be emphasized, but rather be confined to the ethics of journalism and code of conduct controlling these journalists. Otherwise, it may be wrongly used by the journalists to justify their actions of bias.
"With the best of intentions and efforts, mistakes still happen" (p.21).
Perhaps it should be rephrased to emphasize the minimization of mistakes. Otherwise, the statement is too deterministic, thus denoting that mistakes will happen.
" languages receive some airtime, but not necessarily an equal amount" (p.30). This statement perpetuates the dominance of other languages, therefore contradicts the operating principles as outlined on pages 28 and 31.
MISA-SA would like to thank the SABC for making this opportunity available for organisations to make a contribution to the affairs of South Africa's public broadcaster. MISA-SA appreciates the developments taking place at the SABC, including the migration from analogue to digital and the financial implications involved. As MISA-SA we hope that these developments will enhance access, widen the media platform for South Africa's diverse public to express itself freely and promote diversity and equality in languages and programming. This will have to be concurrent with the freedom and independence of the journalists, editors, news heads and programme makers. As freedom of the press is an important tool in democratic countries, it would be regrettable to see the SABC taking a reverse direction with its controversy-ridden upward referral and mandatory referral system. We do hope that, the various responses submitted will not just fulfill regulatory requirements, but will be taken seriously as a true reflection of the South African public opinion regarding the SABC. As Karen Siune (1998: 19) concludes, "no longer do the public broadcasters know and decide what the public needs, the latter knows for itself what it wants and goes for it."
Siune, K. (1998). "Is broadcasting policy becoming redundant?", In: Brants, K, Hermes, J and Van Zoonen, L. The media in question: Popular cultures and public interest. London: Sage.
Sunday Sun, (2003). "Put Ike Kekana back on air·", 11 May.
Sunday Times Business, (2001). "Mission to make TV a much better show", 24 June
Sunday Times Magazine, 1 June (2003)