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ANC submission on the draft editorial policies of the SABC

12 June 2003


Purpose

  • This document provides a detailed commentary by the African National Congress (ANC) on the SABC’s draft editorial policies.
  • The document also contains suggested solutions in other areas covered by the Policies taking into account the South African broadcasting system as envisaged in the White paper on Broadcasting Policy, the provisions of the Broadcasting Act, 1999, recent amendments to the Broadcasting Act, the Constitution and other relevant legislation impacting on the SABC’s operations.

Background

The ANC has noted with appreciation that the Board of the SABC has, in accordance with the requirements of the Broadcasting Amendment Act, 2002, published its editorial Policies for comment by the public.

The ANC welcomes this important development and would like to commend the Board, Management and staff of the SABC for its effort in ensuring that this legal requirement is executed.

Our comments will deal with the areas covered by the published policies, which are as follows:

  • The SABC’s Mandate;
  • The SABC’s Policy on Programming;
  • News, Current Affairs and Information Policy;
  • Local content policy;
  • Educational policy;
  • Universal service and access policy;
  • Language policy;
  • Religious policy.

We have noted that the SABC intends to complete the process of engaging the public in the drafting of the Policies by 13 June 2003 and thereafter these policies will have to be submitted to ICASA as required by law.

Introduction

As indicated above, the African National Congress (ANC) would like to congratulate the Board, Management and staff of the SABC for giving serious consideration and thought to the legislative requirement to produce draft policies for public discussion.

The promptness which the SABC has displayed in this undertaking demonstrates, in our belief, an understanding of the important role the SABC plays in our national life.

Broadcasting will continue to be a field of activity, which deserves just as much attention and discussion as education, defence, health and other sectors that are primarily concerned with public interest. In broadcasting, just like in these other sectors, it would be unthinkable to rely solely on the market forces to ensure the provision of services in an inclusive manner reaching all South Africans.

Public broadcasting for a foreseeable future will be directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of our society and its quest to include all South Africans in socio-political developments that characterise the transition to a democratic society.

The SABC as a public broadcaster plays a fundamental role within the broadcasting dispensation as there is no other media whose main objective is to help build a democratic public space as a venue for producing mutual understanding of South Africans. In a system which is inevitably influenced by market forces, the SABC plays an important role to promote the cultural development on which the quality of public and democratic life that includes and reaches all South Africans depends.

The importance of key policy considerations that drive the SABC is fundamental within this context. It is imperative that society as whole must reach a consensus on the role of the Public Broadcaster in our society. More importantly, society as whole must understand how the SABC, as the Public Broadcaster, seeks to discharge its responsibilities towards the South African citizens, giving concrete meaning to the many constitutional provisions that bestow the rights to receive and disseminate information.

The availability of editorial policies will go a long way in ensuring a detailed understanding of the role and obligations of the SABC. The absence of detailed policies and programme guidelines has hindered the task of communicating, in a consistent manner, the mandate of public services, core values, principles and philosophy. The non-availability of the SABC editorial policies has made it impossible to talk about a consistent value-driven approach to serving the different audience needs.

It has made it difficult to understand the standards that the general public must expect from SABC services and hence the different perceptions on what the SABC should and should not do.

The publication of the Editorial Policies for public discussion is against this backdrop a welcome development. It is another milestone in the transformation of the Public Broadcasting system as part of the consistent efforts to free the airwaves and give meaning to the fundamental right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution.

The Editorial policies published for public discussion serve as a model for public policy development with respect to the media in the context of our transition, globalisation and new technologies.

Basic Assumptions on the role of the SABC

Within this context it is important to state some fundamental assumptions with respect to what it is that the Editorial policies ought to do in order for them to be judged as addressing themselves to the constitutional, legal and societal expectations.

  • The SABC editorial policies give context to the fundamental rights of South Africans to receive and impart information. To this extent the SABC is a public policy instrument that gives concrete expression to the fundamental right to freedom of expression. In this context it is important to quote Nicholas Garnham on the link between media and the fundamental rights:
  • “I take it as axiomatic that some version of communicative action lies at the heart of both theory and practice of democracy. The rights and duties of a citizen are in large part defined in terms of freedom of assembly and freedom to impart and receive information. Without such freedoms it would be impossible for citizens to posses the knowledge of the views of others necessary to reach agreements between themselves, whether consensual or majoritarian, as to either social means or ends; to posses knowledge of the actions of those to whom executive responsibilities are delegated so as to make them accountable; to posses knowledge of the external environment necessary to arrive at appropriate judgment of both personal and societal interests.” (Garnham, 1996: 364)

  • For the SABC to give expression to the fundamental right to freedom of expression it must go beyond treating South Africans as mere audiences and markets captive to its services. It must also approach South Africans as citizens who constitute a public entitled to the many rights that are enshrined in the Constitution, broadcasting and many other statutes.
  • The role played by the SABC is shaped by the history and current context of the country. The SABC as the most pervasive means of communications has a direct role to play in the establishment and consolidation of democracy, democratic values, norms and standards and the building of a common consciousness of being South Africans with a shared frame of reference.
  • Within the globalising media world in which cultural goods, TV and film products can be beamed and received from anywhere else in the world, the SABC as a public broadcaster, owned by the South African public, has a special responsibility to ensure the presence and reflection of South Africa from a South African point of view and as result of South African resources. The SABC must advance South Africa’s national interests and project South African values to South Africans and the rest of the world.
  • Within the South African media environment a publicly owned and partially funded media organisation has some social and cultural goals that derive from its public ownership, public funding and public accountability. In a sense this role provides the SABC with some distinctiveness as compared to other broadcasters that pursue their respective owners’ interests both nationally and internationally.
  • The Editorial Policies are public instruments to give expression to public accountability. The policies establish the benchmarks for the public to judge the SABC performance, offer a check-list of considerations and a frame of reference for the SABC programmers and managers in the execution of their duties.

Judged against these assumptions, it is important to note that the draft policies have to a great extent achieved what they sought to achieve. The Draft Policies link the role of the SABC to the Constitution, emphasise its socio-cultural nature as offering a public service and underscore the SABC’s mandate to treat all South Africans equitably in terms of language and its reach. The Draft Policies also address the role of the SABC as a news and current affairs provider, the tool through which the public relies for information that make its possible for them to participate as citizens in the democratic process. In this sense we congratulate the SABC.

However, there are still areas that warrant further interrogation. Some of these relate to the crafting of the document, content, policy approach and in some instances to what still needs to be included in order for the policies to be comprehensive. The comments provided hereunder must be understood within this context as a contribution to media policy development to achieve a public broadcaster that is in line with South African needs and aspirations.

  1. The SABC’s Mandate:

    1.1 It is noted that the Policy on the mandate of the SABC recognises the legal and regulatory provisions.
    1.2 Reference to the provisions of the legislative and regulatory provisions is illustrated.
    1.3 In as much as it is a welcome development to note that the SABC has taken into account all the legislative and regulatory provisions which have an impact on the operations of the SABC, it is important to ensure that the provisions of these legal documents are reflected in all the policy areas which are to guide the operations of the SABC as outlined.
    1.4 The practical difficulty with this approach is that when discussing the Mandate of the SABC one is forced to cross-refer to many documents, pieces of legislation and regulations.
    1.5 The omission of a reference to the Constitutional provision of freedom of expression is an oversight as this provision is the fundamental departure point for the legislation, regulations and other provisions covering the operations of the SABC.

    Recommendations:

    1. It is recommended that a concise statement articulating the SABC’s mandate be drafted to replace the current formulation. In drafting the concise mandate statement the SABC must take into consideration and incorporate all the references made in the formulation contained in the draft policies.
    2. Reference to the Constitutional provision of freedom of expression must be incorporated in the redrafted Mandate statement.
  2. Core Editorial Values of the SABC

    2.1 Reference to the values of the Constitution and their link to the SABC’s role is important.

    Recommendation:

    1. The current formulation should be retained.
  3. Editorial Code of the SABC

    3.1 The policy on the Editorial Code commits the SABC, as part of its contribution to nation building and strong democracy, to providing information that is relevant, reliable and newsworthy to enable South Africans to make informed decisions. Given this broad commitment, it is important for the policy to recognise the diverse nature of the South African public and therefore calls for a system that is able to service all these needs.
    3.2 The recognition of the diverse nature of the South African public will enable the SABC to commit itself to reaching South Africans regardless of, amongst others, location.
    3.3 This view is based on the concern that the needs of some sectors of the South African Society are currently not given the necessary coverage when compared to others. The following examples demonstrate this inequality of expression through our public broadcaster:

    • The rural communities of South Africa have expressed concern that urban communities and their needs are given preference over the needs of the rural communities in the current broadcasting system and the public broadcaster is no exception.
    • People with disabilities have also expressed the same sentiments in as far as coverage of programmes that addresses their needs are concerned.
    • Current programmes, still to some extent, seem to perpetuate gender stereotypes as reflected in our society.

    3.4 The SABC mandate calls upon the SABC to reflect South Africa and its regions. It is imperative that an appropriate balance is achieved, in policy and its implementation, in information programming between the national and regional needs. Such balance must extend to information about the rural and urban areas of the country. Current practice, in terms of news provision, demonstrates a heavy bias towards the region where the Head Quarters of the SABC is located. Overall the SABC reports more about events and developments in the urban areas as opposed to developments in the rural and peri-urban areas.
    3.5 Having outlined the above-mentioned disparities, it is necessary for the policy to include a precise statement on what the SABC will do to provide for the information needs of those who are currently not adequately serviced by the system.
    3.6 The ability of the public to make informed decisions relies heavily on the availability of information that provides a comprehensive and total picture of developments around them. In so far as the media provides a partial view of developments and reports selectively, the ability of the public to make informed decision is compromised. In this respect policy must commit the SABC to providing a comprehensive picture of the socio-political developments taking place in our country. This comprehensive picture will include the good and bad news, successes and failures. To a large extent many important developments in our society do not achieve coverage because they are deemed not eye-catching or newsworthy. To this category belong many policy interventions and developments that have transformed the lives of many South Africans. Yet because they do not attract any controversies they go unreported. As a result of this selectivity what most often find space in the media reports are the controversies, contestations as if our society is bereft of any achievements. It is imperative for the SABC policy to commit to providing a total picture in an unbiased and impartial manner.
    3.7 The Code also commits the SABC to upholding its core values in the commissioning, production, acquisitioning and broadcasting of programmes. This particular commitment is a welcome development as this particular area of SABC’s operation has always attracted public interest
    3.8 There is therefore a need to commit in the Code to transparent measures relating to the acquisition, commissioning and production of broadcasting programmes. It is also important for the policy to display its commitment to national policies such as:

    • Black economic empowerment
    • Display of South African artistic and journalistic creativity;

    3.9 The Editorial Code notes SABC’s awareness of the danger of discrimination being furthered by broadcasting as a medium and commits the SABC to avoid promoting discrimination through its programmes. Given the background of our country and the discrimination that has been meted to a large percentage of South Africans on the grounds enumerated in the Code it is imperative that the Code commits the SABC to redress this situation through active public education in its programming.
    3.10 The policy also commits to upholding the principle of Journalistic freedom by the SABC and says the SABC sees the protection of journalist’s source as an important part of the principle of journalistic freedom. The notion of protection of the journalist’s freedom raises no problem. However the extension of this notion to include the refusal by the SABC to obey the law, as happened in instances when police request access to information for their official duties raises fundamental problems. The SABC must at all times obey the law and must be seen to be upholding public law and order. The Code must specifically commit the SABC to cooperating with all relevant authorities in the upholding and maintenance of law and order.
    3.11 The phrasing of the respect to the legitimate right to privacy poses some problems. In the current formulation the SABC confines the right to privacy to grief and distress yet this right extends far beyond these aspects. It would be preferable if the Code would commit the SABC to respect the privacy of individuals including all private behaviour, correspondence and conversations.

    Recommendations:

    1. Given this broad commitment, it is important for the Code to recognise the diverse nature of the South African public and to therefore commit to the provision of relevant information to all sections and sectors of the South African population.
    2. There is a need for the Code to commit to transparent measures relating to the acquisition, commissioning and production of broadcasting programmes. It is also important for the policy to display its commitment to national policies such as black economic empowerment and display of South African artistic and journalistic creativity;
    3. Given the background of our country and the discrimination that has been meted to a large percentage of South Africans on the grounds enumerated in the Code it is imperative that the Code commits the SABC to redress this situation through active public education in its programming.
    4. The Editorial Code of the SABC should commits to the reflection of diversity inherent in our society. In this commitment the SABC must give a full and fair view of the peoples and cultures
    5. The Code must commit the SABC to respect the privacy of individuals including all private behaviour, correspondence and conversations.

    3.1 Editorial Responsibility and Upward Referral

    3.1.1 We note that this policy, in as far as Editorial Responsibility and Upward referral is concerned, is consistent with adopted international practice and commend the SABC for ensuring that the South African situation follows an international practice in matters of this nature.

    Recommendations:

    1. Policy on Upward referral should be retained as applicable to all programmes.
    2. The section on Mandatory referral to the Group Executive and the Board does not provide a detailed account of instances when issues must be referred. There is a need for a detailed account of instances and issues that need to be referred.
  4. Programming Policy

    4.1 The programming Policy as published is a welcome development and we appreciate the SABC’s effort in developing this Policy. However, we believe that the Policy needs to provide for effective mechanism to monitor implementation. The current policy document makes generalized statements without providing for mechanisms to translate these statements into concrete deliverables.
    4.2 The Programming Policy is silent on how it aims to take into account gender imperatives.

    Recommendations:

    1. We recommend that the Programming Policy must commit the SABC to the development of the three (3) year operating plans with targets and outcomes to operationalise the broad policies. The Board must approve the Three Year Plan. The Three Year Operating Plan must be reviewable on annual basis.
    2. We have noted that the policy has omitted reference to gender issues and we would recommend that this aspect be dealt with.

4.2 Programming Complaints

4.2.1 We have noted that the policy contains mechanisms for the lodging of programme complaints but suggests that the SABC must consider appointing an ombudsperson to act as a liaison official between the SABC and the Public in all matters relating to Programme complaints.

Recommendation:

  1. It is recommended that the SABC appoint an Ombudsperson to deal with complaints lodged by the public.
  1. News, Current Affairs and Information Policy

    5.1 The spirit and the commitments of the SABC in relation to this policy is commendable. We wish to state that we commend the policy provisions relating to the requirement that SABC’s staff will uphold the highest level of professional and ethical standards.
    5.2 We recommend that the policy should not merely state the SABC’s commitment to maintaining the highest standards of professionalism but also make provisions for the training and development of its journalists so as to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards.
    5.3 We note with appreciation the SABC’s commitment to seek balance by presenting relevant views on matters of importance. The policy further states that this commitment may not be achieved in a single news bulletin or programme but should be done within a reasonable time.
    5.4 This particular commitment is not clear in the following respect;

    • The meaning of reasonable time to achieve this requirement is not clarified.
    • How the programmes, which deal with one subject, will be connected and the viewers made aware of the continuation of the discussion.

    5.5 The Policy document commits the SABC to “ … report, contextualise, and present news and current affairs honestly by striving to disclose all the essential facts and by not suppressing relevant, available facts, or by distorting by wrong or improper emphasis.” This is to be welcomed as any journalist organization, to achieve balance and fairness, should ensure that a widest possible range of views is expressed honestly and properly contexualised. However, this value as presently articulated may in itself lead to the creation of a wrong perception that a strand of thought that is unpopular will as a result of this value be accorded the same status and presented as equal to a significant consensus in society. There is a definite need for policy to recognize the need for SABC to take proper account of the weight of opinion that holds any views, its significance or potential significance. The SABC programmes dealing with differing points of views must supplement the articulation of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of views. Equitable in this context must mean taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.
    5.6 On many occasions, representation of a single point of view on matters of considerable importance is reported in the news without any reference to the opposing viewpoint. In most of the instances this viewpoint, on a basis of a media statement is reported on as if it is factual information. In some instances responses to government initiatives and policies are reported without the government initiative having been reported. These instances are examples in which the important principles of fairness and balance are routinely ignored. It is our submission that policy must commit the SABC journalists to ensuring that appropriate representation of all point of views are catered for.
    5.7 The Policy document commits the SABC to “… offer information that is substantial, and analysis that is authentic and meaningful to ordinary, inquiring South Africans so that they can form their own opinions.” This commitment is to be welcomed. However the SABC should go beyond the provision of information to those who are already seeking particular information and insights. The SABC, to a large degree, is the only media contact that a large section of the population has, as such must include as part of its provision information that the public is entitled and needs to know.
    5.8 The policy document commits the SABC to covering other events, which may include major parliamentary debates, the opening of provincial national and provincial parliaments. Parliament plays an important role in term of our Constitutional order as such deserves more coverage than what has been allocated. In addition, coverage of parliament has often concentrated on the National Assembly. The National Council of Provinces ahs received no significant coverage. A comprehensive coverage of parliament should include coverage of both Houses.
    5.9 The News, Current Affairs and Information Policy is silent on a number of important issues as they pertain to news and information. These would include:

    • A definition of due impartiality and how different views on a controversial matter should be handled and balanced.
    • How significant matters of public policy must be handled. This relates to how the SABC handles debates of national interests
    • Reporting in times of national emergency . This relates to how the SABC should behave during the times when its journalists are restrained by questions of national security.
    • Party political coverage outside and in between the elections. Legislation provides for the way in which party political issues are dealt with during election times. No guidance is available on how the SABC deals with party political issues outside of the elections.

    5.10 An issue that warrants mention is the issue of manipulation of audiences. Policy provides for a prohibition on the abuse of the powerful position programme personnel occupy to paddle their own points of views. This must be supplemented by a provision that the audience must not be incited by SABC program personnel to express itself in the form of communications to elected representatives, institutions, commercial enterprises or individuals, or by attendance at meetings and demonstrations with a view to exerting pressure to seek changes in public policy or to support a particular point of view. Such actions would in effect make the Corporation a party to controversy and would be contrary to the premise that the Corporation takes no editorial position in its programming.
    5.11 The News and Current Affairs Policy commits the SABC to providing the full spectrum of opinions, perspectives and comment as it applies to the selection of guests, analysts and special commentators. However, experience continues to show that not all segments and sections of our population are adequately reflected in programming. It is imperative that a clear policy statement must commit the SABC to the reflection and representation of people from all backgrounds. Policy must articulate ways and means through which the SABC will ensure that people from the underrepresented sections are drawn upon as participants in all the SABC programmes.

    Recommendations:

    1. We recommend that the policy should make provisions for the training and development of the SABC journalists so as to attain and maintain the highest professional and ethical standards.
    2. Policy must provide further details of how balance will be achieved in situation in which it is not possible to display all the points of views in one programme.
    3. Policy must provide further details on:
      • A definition of due impartiality and how different views on a controversial matter should be handled and balanced.
      • How significant matters of public policy must be handled. This relates to how the SABC handles debates of national interests.
      • Reporting in times of national Emergency and Military Action. This relates to how the SABC should behave during the times when its journalists are restrained by questions of national security.
      • Party political coverage ion between and outside of the elections.
    4. Policy must articulate how the SABC will draw on those who are underrepresented to participate in its programming.
  1. Language Policy

    6.1 We have noted the commitments of the SABC towards language broadcasting in particular covering of programmes in indigenous languages of the Republic.
    6.2 We believe that the policy as it stands may be viewed to be lacking in detail and on that recommend that the policy should commit to the following:

    • Targets for the achievement of its objective.
    • Three-year operational plans in this regard.
    • An annual report on the successes and failures of the policy commitments.
    • A percentage allocation of the SABC’s budget towards this end.

    Recommendations:

The Language Policy should commit to the following:

    • Targets for the achievement of its objective.
    • Three-year operational plans in this regard.
    • An annual report on the successes and failures of the policy commitments.
    • A percentage allocation of the SABC’s budget towards this end
  1. Universal Service and Access Policy

    7.1 The commitments contained in this Policy are commendable but we have noted that the Policy omits to make provisions for access to broadcasting by blind persons.
    7.2 The Broadcasting Amendment Act provides that the South African Broadcasting System must be responsive to the needs of all South Africans including the needs of the deaf and the blind and must account on how they meet those needs.
    7.3 This policy is expected to give effect to this legal requirement and therefore, it is expected that this policy must contain practical measures on how to meet the needs of the deaf and the blind persons.
    7.4 We recommend that the SABC must consider closed captioning as a mechanism to deal with the needs of the Blind persons.

    Recommendations:

    1. Universal Policy must include provisions for closed captioning.