Pretoria - While Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo recently had to answer difficult questions in Parliament as to why a permanent SABC board has not yet been appointed, the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, is due to deliver judgment this week in an application in which several NGO’s felt that the minister had too much say in these issues.
The SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition and Freedom of Expression Institute, joined by the Right2Know Campaign as a friend of the court, earlier asked judge Elias Matojane to streamline certain provisions of the Broadcasting Act. This, they said, is to ensure the independence of the SABC.
The parties during their arguments said that as things stand, the minister had too much say in these matters, which hampered the independence of the board.
The Right 2Know Campaign, in its submissions said at the root of the governance crisis plaguing the SABC for many years were the political and commercial interests that have sought to undermine the broadcaster’s independence.
It is of the opinion that successive communication ministers have exploited contradictions in legislation to undermine the SABC Board and claimed powers to directly appoint senior executives.
The parties, in challenging the minister in court, argued that that the Broadcasting Act should prevail over the Companies Act. It was said that the Broadcasting Act was specifically intended to govern the public broadcaster whereas the Companies Act made the Minister of Communication the sole shareholder in the SABC.
They believe that the governing board of the public broadcaster must be free from State interference and accountable to Parliament and not the Executive.
They said millions of South Africans relied on the public broadcaster for information and it should thus remain independent of any political influence.
Advocate Steven Budlender, appearing for the NGO’s, said for decades the SABC had been beset by chronic problems of weak governance, mismanagement and political interference. This has recently led once again to the entire SABC Board having to resign and for an interim board to meanwhile run the broadcaster.
The Public Protector in the past found that the problems at the SABC were exacerbated by political interference in the affairs of the Board by the various ministers of communications.
The NGO’s firstly attacked the powers given to the minister over the appointment of the SABC’s Group Chief Executive Officer, the Chief Operations Officer and the Chief Financial Officer.
The minister has the veto power regarding their appointment, their terms and conditions of appointment and their term of office. The NGO’s said the SABC Board, and not the minister, must “control the affairs” of the SABC.
The also attacked the powers given to the minister to remove all the directors of the SABC, including the non-executive directors. Budlender earlier argued that there was no dispute that the SABC must be independent. This, he said required independence from political interference by government.
The main disputes between the parties were whether the SABC governance structure, its Memorandum of Incorporation (Mol) and the SABC Board Charter, protected the independence of the SABC, which the NGO’s said it did not.
Budlender said as things now stood, the minister could for instance waive the requirement for the Board to advertise and shortlist candidates who apply for the top positions of GCEO, COO and CFO. It was said that she could thus manipulate the appointment process.
The Mol also extended powers to the minister over the administration and operations of the SABC Board as a whole.
The minister, on the other hand, said there were plenty of checks and balances in place, which assured the independence of the Board. She said her role in the appointment process was a limited one. She said no matter her appointment power, her influence did not extend to the affairs of the Board and the content broadcast by the SABC.
Judgment was due to be delivered on Monday in the constitutional challenge, but due to the illness of the judge, it is now expected to be delivered by the end of the week.