Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the SABC's acting chief operating officer. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng

Johannesburg - The multimillion-rand contract authorising the flighting of the SABC’s 24-hour news channel on DStv, negotiated by its acting chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, is coming under scrutiny from the unions and the civil society coalition, Save Our SABC (SOS).

SOS acting co-ordinator Sekoetlane Phamodi said the coalition gave the contract to its lawyers to peruse as soon as they became aware of it.

“We’re exploring what avenues are available to challenge the contract between the SABC and MultiChoice,” Phamodi said.

The contract, believed to be worth about R500 million, was signed by the SABC and MultiChoice before the launch of the public broadcaster’s 24-hour news channel in August.

Motsoeneng was key in the negotiation of the contract and MultiChoice SA chief executive Imtiaz Patel praised his negotiating tactics during the launch.

Phamodi said they were talking to the SABC to avoid a confrontation.

“Going to court will be the last resort, but if it means going to court we will,” he said.

The SOS coalition includes Cosatu and some of its affiliates, the Freedom of Expression Institute and the Broadcasting Electronic Media and Allied Workers Union (Bemawu), among others.

The coalition’s objections to the channel include that it is broadcast on DStv in contravention of the SABC’s public service mandate. “Is the SABC delivering on its mandate by handing channels to a commercial broadcaster?” Phamodi asked.

The contract also gives MultiChoice rights to share exclusive SABC content, including events of national importance and funerals of prominent people.

Motsoeneng was given authority by the interim SABC board appointed earlier this year, after mass resignations of board members, to conclude deals affecting the SABC’s sought-after archives.

The interim board, led by current chairwoman Zandile Tshabalala, gave Motsoeneng authority to sign agreements on the archives, a decision the interim board said was in line with the delegation of authority framework. According to the SABC, it would be inaccurate to put monetary value on the archives because some genres are more valuable than others and, affordability in the various markets, territory where content will be sold and cost of conversion to saleable medium had to be considered too.

Bemawu president Hannes du Buisson said the union had also written a letter to management to complain about the 24-hour channel. He said the union was considering lodging complaints with either Public Protector Thuli Madonsela or communications regulator Icasa. Bemawu insists the channel is in breach of the SABC’s public service mandate.

MultiChoice, owners of DStv, recently revealed that it had 4.7 million subscribers in South Africa and “15 to 20 million viewers”.

The SA Audience Research Foundation puts viewership of SABC TV channels up to almost 30 million.

Motsoeneng referred queries to SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago, who said SOS was free to lodge complaints or go to court. Kganyago said the 24-hour channel was flighted on DStv because the SABC did not have space.

“When digital terrestrial television (DTT) comes, the channel will be flighted dually on DStv and DTT,” he said.

Communications Minister Yunus Carrim said the SABC-MultiChoice contract was part of a joint task team’s mission to look at the SABC’s long-term financial viability. “The SABC has indicated that aspects of the contract can be reviewed if they are not workable,” Carrim said.

MultiChoice’s Jackie Rakitla did not respond to requests for comment.

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Sunday Independent