Communications

Propaganda ‘machine’ should be quietly scrapped

By Gavin Davis

Last year, during the Ellen Tshabalala scandal, the Communications Portfolio Committee showed that this Parliament could hold people to account despite their links to powerful politicians. We can all be proud of this achievement.

Our task now, is to hold the Minister to account for her performance over the last year. And, if we are honest, we will all agree that her performance has been a massive disappointment.

I am sure that nobody is more disappointed in the Minister’s performance than the President. He wanted a new propaganda ministry to clean up his government’s image, but all he got was more controversy.

Just look at what’s happened in the year since this ministry was created:

We’ve had an SABC Board Chairperson resign because she was caught lying about her qualifications. But this was only after 6 damaging months of postponed hearings, court cases and other delaying tactics.

We’ve had an SABC Chief Operations Officer who has been shielded and promoted when the Public Protector said he should have been fired.

We have a Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) that is abused to promote the majority party, including the channeling of public money into the coffers of a government-friendly newspaper owned by the President’s friends.

And then, in a few weeks on 17 June, we face humiliation on a global scale. Because, on that day, we will miss the International Telecommunications Union deadline to switch over from analogue to digital television. If Minister Muthambi had not spent the last year meddling with the Digital Migration Policy, and waging an obsessive turf war to control the process, it is unlikely that we would be in the embarrassing position we now find ourselves in.

Most serious of all, is that the Minister willfully misunderstands her role in relation to the SABC. She believes that the SABC is a state-owned company instead of an independent public broadcaster. She wants to take us back to the apartheid era when the SABC was a tool in the hands of politicians, instead of a resource belonging to the people of this country.

This is why the Minister thinks there is nothing wrong with unilaterally seizing the powers of the SABC Board, even though this is in clear contravention of the Broadcasting Act.

And it is why the Minister thinks it is okay to send independent SABC Board Members threatening letters, even when she has no power in law to appoint or remove them.

In her Budget Speech last year, Minister Muthambi said that stabilising the SABC was at the very top of her agenda.

However, since then, no less than three SABC Board Members have resigned, while three others have been forcibly and illegally removed. As a result, the SABC Board does not have a Chairperson, or a quorum to legally constitute meetings.

Last year, the Minister also promised that a new Chief Executive Officer would be in place by the end of September. Nine months have passed and the post is still vacant.

No wonder the SABC is in crisis, the scale of which is only starting to become clear.

Financial documents recently brought to light by the Sunday Times newspaper show that the SABC faces a projected loss of R501-million for the financial year just ended on March 31. This loss is projected to double to R1 billion in the next financial year.

So the SABC is not on “a sound financial footing”, as Minister Muthambi said in Parliament a few weeks ago. On the contrary, the SABC is facing financial ruin.

We need to fix our public broadcaster as a matter of priority. But the only way to do that is to ensure that there is less political interference in the SABC, not more.

This is why it is crucial that the Speaker’s Office releases the legal opinion on the removal of Board Members Hope Zinde, Rachel Kalidass and Ronnie Lubisi. Once we have this legal opinion, the Portfolio Committee can deal with this matter as we are mandated to do in terms of the Broadcasting Act.

It is imperative that the Portfolio Committee works together to find the most qualified and independently minded candidates to take up positions on the Board. And then they need to be left alone to do their jobs in the interests of the public we serve.

These steps will go some way to get the SABC back on track, but they won’t fix all that is wrong in the Communications Department. Because, the truth is, this Department should never have been created in the first place.

We live in the age of convergence – where traditional broadcasting is rapidly merging with new digital telecommunication technology. This is why it never made sense to create separate Communications and Telecommunications Departments.

As a result of the split, we have unnecessary duplication, inherent contradictions and overall lack of policy coherence. Let me give one important example of this.

On the 14 November 2014, the Telecommunications Minister gazetted the National Integrated ICT Policy Discussion Paper for public comment. An entire chapter of it is devoted to broadcasting, including regulation, language diversity, the funding and mandate of the SABC, and media diversity and development.

Yet two days before, no doubt in anticipation of the release of the ICT Discussion Paper, Minister Muthambi announced that she would be doing her own Broadcasting Policy Review — on precisely the same topics covered in the ICT Discussion Paper. What a waste of time, energy and resources.

In his drive to create a propaganda machine, the President has created a mess. And the great irony is that he never got the propaganda machine he wanted. Because no ministry this dysfunctional could ever be referred to as a ‘machine’.

So I would like to offer the President a reprieve. If he quietly scraps the new Communications ministry and goes back to the old converged Department, we will never mention this failed experiment again.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the Communications Budget Vote Debate.

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The op-ed the New Age refused to publish

Note: The New Age last week refused to publish this opinion piece, despite originally offering to publish an 800-word rebuttal of an article the DA complained to the Ombudsman about in February. This is the second time that The New Age reneged on a commitment to deal with the complaint

By Gavin Davis

If you are reading this in a copy of The New Age, you are probably an official in a government department. Because we all know that government subscriptions make up the bulk of copies of The New Age distributed. Few people actually buy The New Age.

This is why The New Age refuses to become a member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations of South Africa (ABC), an independent organisation established to provide accurate and comparable circulation figures. The owners of The New Age don’t want people to know just how dismally it performs in the marketplace.

On 2 March, The New Age opted out of another body that mainstream newspapers subscribe to – the Press Ombudsman system. The Office of the Press Ombudsman is an independent entity mandated by The Press Council to ensure fair and accurate reporting in accordance with The Press Code.

The New Age’s withdrawal from the Press Ombudsman followed a DA complaint to the Ombudsman regarding a front-page article published on 2 February. The article, entitled ‘DA sees conspiracies where there are none’, was designed to discredit the DA’s claims that government advertising expenditure is skewed in favour of The New Age.

The article breached at least four sections of The Press Code because it:

  • Failed to reflect a multiplicity of voices;
  • The reporter did not attempt to solicit the views of the subject of critical reportage;
  • The headline presented the opinion of Minister Faith Muthambi as fact; and
  • The reporting was slanted as a result of political and commercial considerations.

There is no doubt that the timing of The New Age’s withdrawal from the Ombudsman system was related to the DA’s complaint. As the Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, said: “Now, when we got the complaint about The New Age from the DA, The New Age was quite reluctant to respond to the complaint and when we contacted them, they sent a note stating they are pulling out of the system.”

In other words, rather than face the prospect of publishing a retraction and an apology, The New Age opted to pull out of the Press Ombudsman system altogether. In a statement on the matter, the CEO of The New Age, Mr Nazeem Howa promised to deal with the DA’s complaint “through an independent third party.”

When I forwarded the complaint to The New Age, the newspaper offered me an 800-word opinion piece to respond to the article in question. This is hardly a satisfactory resolution because it means that The New Age can avoid the embarrassment of apologising and retracting the story.

The alternative, however, was to wait three or four months for The New Age to appoint its own ombudsman to deal with the complaint. Even then, there is no way that an ombudsman appointed by The New Age, and on the payroll of the New Age, can be either independent or a third party. Under these conditions, the chances of a fair adjudication are nil.

So, let me take this opportunity to set the record straight.

The New Age is owned by a family with close links to President Zuma, and its editorial policy is to publish stories that present the Zuma administration in a positive light. SABC Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng described The New Age’s editorial policy at a New Age Breakfast Briefing on 13 February:

“We as the public broadcaster, we are different to New Age but, at least, while we have this relationship with New Age, they share the same views with us: 70% good story to tell. And we must do that.”

Motsoeneng went on to berate Cabinet Ministers who still advertise in independent media outlets: “I don’t understand why you are spending money on people who are not even appreciating what government is doing,” he said.

These sentiments are not new. It was back in 2011 when then government spokesperson, Jimmy Manyi, declared that government-friendly media outlets would be rewarded with a greater share of government advertising expenditure.

This explains why the Department of Communications spent R 10.2 million or 11.2% of its advertising budget in The New Age in the last financial year, despite its small readership of 153,000 people. By comparison, significantly less (R 7.8 million) was spent on the Daily Sun, for example, which has a readership of 5.3 million people.

The New Age supports the government, so the government supports The New Age. But this is not government’s money to do what it likes with. Your hard-earned tax money – money that should be spent on healthcare, housing and schools – is being used to keep this propaganda pamphlet afloat. In the end, the only consolation is that relatively few people read it.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications