S. African TV industry pickets pubcaster

Picketing by disgruntled viewers, staffers and suppliers has become commonplace outside the South African Broadcasting Corp.’s Johannesburg HQ in recent years — and shows no sign of abating as the pubcaster wrestles with a string of scandals.

At the end of November, the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition demonstrated in front of the building, calling for the government to investigate SABC board chairman Ben Ngubane amid continuing allegations of poor corporate governance.

The cash-strapped broadcaster, which operates three TV channels and 18 radio stations, has had five chief executive officers and three boards since 2007 and is presently lacking a CEO, chief operating officer and chief financial officer.

The tensions within the SABC started with a politically-appointed board in 2007.

At a time when the SABC was losing advertising revenue, audiences and the production sector’s trust, the pubcaster became embroiled in a political battle between then president Thabo Mbeki and current president Jacob Zuma, with the pro-Mbeki board fired by Zuma’s parliament in 2009.

During the economic crisis in the 2008-2009 financial year, the SABC lost close to R1 billion ($124.5 million) and was forced to seek government guarantees of $186.7 million. “Never-ending mismanagement, fruitless and wasteful expenditure, and no permanence in leadership continue to be the order of the day at the SABC,” says Marc Schwinges, deputy chair of the South African Screen Federation (Sasfed), which represents all the major film industry orgs.

At the recent protest, SOS, formerly known as Save Our SABC, complained that the pubcaster had not answered a slew of questions, including why the vacant exec positions hadn’t been filled and why the pubcaster wasted $2.5 million leasing 86 luxury cars for the news team — then left them unused because of a lack of insurance.

The coalition also questioned the SABC’s recently released Request for Proposals, its system for ordering locally made shows, pointing out that very few of the pubcaster’s June 2010 commissions had been picked up for production.

“The 2010 and 2011 RFPs make up a small percentage of what is required in original programming to meet local content quotas,” says Schwinges.

SABC 1 and 2 are required to air 55% local content and SABC3 35%, but the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa has so far been unable to effectively monitor or enforce this.

The SOS statement adds, “The SOS Coalition would like to see excellent public service programming on our screens and fair and transparent commissioning processes to ensure this. We need more quality South African stories told by South Africans.”

More than 120 people gathered to support the coalition, including reps from Sasfed; the Congress of South African Trade Unions and its affiliated unions; and NGOs including the Freedom of Expression Institute, the Right to Know Campaign, Media Monitoring Africa, and the Soweto Concerned Residents Assn.

The pubcaster, one of the few in the world that relies almost solely on advertising, hasn’t had a financial recovery plan since the government withdrew the proposed 1% tax on personal income to fund the SABC in 2009. It also needs capital to fund a digital migration strategy, which will see it grow to between 15 and 20 TV channels.

The government’s communications minister, Dina Pule, has now set up a war room to deal with the SABC crisis. She is pressing for the SABC so-called turnaround plan — its strategy to deal with the crisis — to be finalized by January.

This seems unlikely, considering the uncertainty over who is actually developing this plan.

SOS questioned why Justice Ndaba had initially been brought in to oversee the turnaround strategy, despite the fact he had business interests that conflicted with his SABC employment. The SOS also has questions over why Ndaba was described as a private consultant, not an employee, when the SABC paid him $30,600 for study and travel expenses for a course, which local newspapers have suggested was never finished because of a skirmish with a prostitute.

Music exec Sipho Sithole is expected to replace Ndaba, but Sithole’s previous tenure in a similar role at the SABC ended with his resignation in 2010 amid allegations of a conflict of interest with his private stake in the music industry.

“The hope is that they’ll turn it around,” says Kate Skinner, SOS coordinator, “but right now we’re not even sure who’s heading the turnaround.”

The SABC declined to comment. The protest at the SABC came two days after Black Tuesday, when mass protests failed to stop parliament passing the Protection of State Information Bill. This so-called Secrecy Bill means that journalists and whistle-blowers may be jailed for 25 years for possessing or disseminating information the government has deemed classified, even if acting in the public interest.

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