Public Broadcasting in South Africa : FXI comments on SABC's draft editorial policy

On Friday 13 June, the FXI submitted its comments on the SABC's editorial policies, released for public comment earlier this year.

As a result of amendments made to the Broadcasting Act of 1999, the SABC is required to develop Editorial Policies the SABC released a set of policies for public comment (see The policies cover the following areas: programming; news and current affairs; language; local content; universal service; religious broadcasting; and educational broadcasting. These policies should clarify the mandate of the SABC, and provide a template against which to measure its performance.

According to the Act, the SABC should submit these policies to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa). The combination of public consultation and referral to Icasa was a compromise reached by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications last year after a public controvery over the Bill. The draft Bill originally proposed that these policies should be approved by the Minister of Communications; a proposal which was roundly condemned as a violation of the SABC's independence.

One proposal in the policies has caused a great deal of controversy in South Africa involves the ‘upward referral’ of potentially controversial news stories. The section on editorial responsibility suggests that the CEO of the SABC should have the final say in the case of such controversies where journalists are not sure about the ‘potential commercial and political harm’ that can be caused in the case of controversial news being broadcast. This move, if approved, will undermine both the editorial and legal departments, which are the most appropriate structures to make such decisions. These suggestions confuse and conflate the roles of management and the editorial department.

On language, the FXI noted that the policies privilege the question of resources over that of redress. Historically marginalised languages are unlikely to be given appropriate attention and improvement because the reasoning that runs through the policies is that such languages will receive more airtime depending on whether resources to do so are available. In a country marked by historical inequalities it would be expected that the imperative for redress should guide resource allocation and not the other way round.

The FXI further noted that the education policy fails to introduce a shift from an emphasis on entrepreneurship education towards more critical forms of education. The same can be said about religious broadcasting which is still steeped in the traditional view of religion and the tendency to ‘ring-fence’ religious broadcasts instead of diffusing them into other programmes or divisions such as Education where they can, like any other social idea, be contested.

The policy on universal service and access, while claiming otherwise, falls squarely into the trap of viewing universal service from a technicist telecommunications inspired model. Since 1994 the SABC has been struggling to meet the targets set by the so-called 'Triple Inquiry Report', which included a 'roadmap' for public broadcasting in South Africa.

The SABC has already started holding public hearings into the policies, a move that might assist to give them a much-needed boost and shape than the form in which they are at the moment.

For the FXI's submission, see