S. African watchdog nixes regional nets

Gov't concerned over too much English p'gramming on SABC

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s broadcasting regulator has shot down the government’s proposal to establish two new state-controlled regional television stations.

During public hearings this week on the Broadcasting Amendment Bill, in which the plan was published, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) slammed the proposal as “unconstitutional” and “not viable.”

Linguistic lock-up

Concerned that there is too much English programming on pubcaster the South African Broadcasting Corp., the government is seeking to establish channels that will provide language diversity in a country with 11 official ones. The SABC has a lingo-diversity requirement in its public broadcasting mandate, but a recent survey showed that 70% of programming is in English.

According to the bill, the stations will not be connected to the SABC and will be required to use all official languages except English. The state will initially be the sole shareholder, but “it may invite public or private investors to become shareholders at a later stage.”

Icasa was not consulted on the proposal and was taken by surprise when the matter appeared in the bill. Indeed, the regulator is conducting an extensive feasibility study on the most effective ways to establish financially viable regional TV in the country. Study should be complete by 2004.

Icasa chairman Mandla Langa said it had already been agreed that regional channels would be private while the bill placed them under state control.

Constitutional clash

Langa knocked the government for attempting to bypass the regulator unconstitutionally. “Ultimately, we have to license any new channels, and we cannot approve services which are not financially viable. By law, we have authority over content and policy regulations, not the government,” he said.

Langa also said there were several practical problems that the government had clearly not thought through since no feasibility study had been done. “What frequencies will be used? If the channel is going to be digital, as has been stated, who will pay for it? What is the financing model and when will privatization take place? Is there a business plan?”

The broadcasting bill, which also contains clauses that would increase state control over the SABC, has received widespread criticism from political parties, trade unions, private enterprise and media analysts. The government was hoping to have the bill rubber-stamped before the end of the year, but this seems unlikely considering the level of opposition.

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