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SABC needs to speak up

As the only broadcaster providing both radio and television news content to South Africa, the SABC often seems to come under political pressure from a variety of sources.

That the SABC board is appointed through a parliamentary process also means that it becomes politicised, leading to claims that various groups within the ruling alliance are using the organisation for political ends. It now appears that in the run-up to the African National Congress's (ANC's) Mangaung conference, the broadcaster is again coming under increasing pressure, on several fronts.

While the corporation does appear to be making some progress under its new CEO Lulama Mokhobo, it also lacks the capacity to fight back against these attacks.

Last Sunday, the South African Communist Party (SACP) in Gauteng lodged a memorandum of demands at the broadcaster, insisting, among other things, that "the SABC must play a role of being a primary platform for conveying positive messages from the government".

The party also accused the SABC of "subjecting critical messages of government to third voice status by over using analysts" in a way that means "government is denied the opportunity to communicate directly to the citizens to empower them to make their own decisions".

The ANC in the province also attacked the broadcaster's decisions to carry messages from "factionalists" - a claim that could be interpreted to mean that it is unhappy the corporation covers speeches made by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

These demands can be interpreted through the prism of SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande's critique that the SABC was giving too much airtime to "factionalists".

As Mr Nzimande (whose wife worked at the corporation until last year) is also a strong supporter of President Jacob Zuma, it may appear this memorandum by the SACP in Gauteng is intended to put pressure on the corporation to fall into line behind Mr Zuma.

On the same day as the SACP's memorandum, the Sunday Times continued a series of reports on the corporation with a claim the SABC's demands that viewers pay their TV licences had no basis in law.

This is a difficult issue for the corporation. The law compelling people to pay a fee to the corporation for merely owning a television set, even if they do not view SABC channels, has never been constitutionally tested. Under the statute, it means even e.tv, the SABC's main competitor, would have to pay a fee for every TV set it uses in its studios. In effect, it forces both e.tv and DStv to subsidise a competitor, a situation which may be legally challengeable.

For the corporation, the real problem is that if the message takes hold that no one will face any real punishment for not paying the licence fee, the SABC is unlikely to count on that income into the future. As an organisation that is perennially short of money, that would add to its financial woes, thereby strengthening the government's hand.

Among the problems the corporation faces is that it appears to lack the capacity to defend itself in public. The Sunday Times report mentions that the list of questions it submitted to the corporation evoked no response. The SABC often hides behind the claim that it cannot discuss internal issues in public.

However, in an organisation as politicised as the SABC, the various factions within it leak information to further their own ends. This means they often achieve better publicity at the corporation's expense.

For various structural reasons relating to South Africa's politics and the way the SABC board is appointed, the corporation is always likely to be in the political firing line. However, for it to survive these attacks, it might wish to create mechanisms that allow its voice to be heard.

This column appeared in the Business Day.

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