Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

INDUSTRY experts and the opposition have decried the government’s decision to group the public broadcaster and state communication entities under one ministry.

This, they argue, raises concern about the independence of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in particular.

President Jacob Zuma said when unveiling his new Cabinet on Sunday that a new communications ministry would be "formed out of components" including the SABC, Brand SA, the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), and the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS). The ministry would be responsible for communication strategy and the "branding of the country abroad".

At its 2012 Mangaung conference, the African National Congress (ANC) resolved that its national executive committee should establish a framework that "enhances collaboration, effective planning and oversight within the ANC and government communication".

Apart from the SABC, the MDDA and Brand SA, the new communications ministry will also incorporate the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

Head of Media Monitoring Africa William Bird said the conflation of these state organisations was "concerning" as they were not meant to service government messaging but to act in the public interest. Existing "inappropriate powers" over the SABC were set to be entrenched.

Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi, Coordinator of the lobby group SOS: Support Public Broadcasting, said the organisation was "astonished" at the decision that was a blow to the sector especially at a time when "we need to be moving to a converged ICT (information and communication technology) environment."

Right2Know national spokesman Murray Hunter said grouping all these organisations would prove challenging, as their mandates could be prone to contention. "Priorities for the SABC and MDDA are promoting the free flow of information and independent media coverage. GCIS and Brand SA have a mandate to serve as government’s voice.

"This ministry will pull in two different directions. I sense the design of this ministry will make its functions that much harder ."

ANC spokesman Keith Khoza said the mass media was merely a platform in the ongoing "battle of ideas" in South Africa. "The battle of ideas is about public debate, in fact.

"This is debate about public policy and other matters. The ANC, like any political organisation in the public domain, seeks to influence public opinion, so we are unapologetic about that because it is part of the battle of ideas."

Mr Khoza added that the constitution protected the independence of the SABC.

The SABC and Icasa had their independence tested in the weeks leading up to elections earlier this month, amid perceptions of political interference.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) approached Icasa’s complaints and compliance committee, when the SABC would not flight their television advertisements.

The SABC initially pulled the DA’s ayisafani advert, saying it was concerned that its blunt reference to police brutality could incite violence against the police. Also, the SABC refused to flight the EFF’s advert, in which the party pledged to "destroy e-tolls physically" if elected.

DA shadow minister of Communications Marian Shinn said on Monday that the reconfiguration showed that the ANC " conflates communication content and communications infrastructure ."