Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has doubled down on the government’s plan to charge people with computers, smartphones, and tablets TV licence fees.
This was part of a response from Ndabeni-Abrahams to a question from the DA deputy chief whip in the National Assembly, Michael Waters.
Waters asked the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies:
What is the justification of (a) charging persons with mobile devices the cost of a TV licence and (b) transferring all the income of TV licences derived from mobile devices to the SABC?
In response, Ndabeni-Abrahams cited sections of the recently published “Draft White Paper on Audio and Audio-Visual Content Services Policy Framework: A New Vision for South Africa 2020”.
She said amendments to the TV licence fee section to broaden the definition and collection system for television licences are necessary because of the SABC’s financial challenges.
There are also plans to strengthen enforcement mechanisms and penalties of non-payment of TV licenses.
She added that “achievement of the above will be determined by the submissions expected from all South Africans towards the draft White Paper”.
What Ndabeni-Abrahams is referring to is the public comment process related to the Draft White Paper which closes on 15 February 2021.
Ndabeni-Abrahams’s response did not sit well with DA Shadow Minister of Communications Zakhele Mbhele.
Mbhele said Ndabeni-Abrahams did not “properly justify” government’s intention of charging people with mobile devices the cost of a TV licence and giving the money to the SABC.
“This draft paper proposes to exploit another stream of revenue to bail out yet another state entity brought to its knees by years of gross mismanagement,” he said.
“And it seems the Minister knows that this is not justifiable, given her poor attempt at answering the question.”
Mbhele added that it is the same White Paper that seeks to extend TV licence fees to include streaming services like Netflix, regardless of whether such a service is viewed on a television.
He urged the public to make written submissions opposing the Draft White Paper’s plan broaden the definition and collection system for TV licences.
The DA has also launched a petition against the government’s plan to force people to pay for a TV licence to stream Netflix or watch DStv.
“You should not have to pay a cent more to keep the SABC afloat,” the DA said.
Expert opinions about the planned TV license changes
Ian Jacobsberg, director at Tabacks Attorneys, said there are many challenges related to the TV license proposals in the Draft White Paper.
Jacobsberg said dealers are currently not allowed to sell TV sets to anyone who is not in possession of a licence.
It would be easy to introduce a similar regulation obliging a subscription services like Netflix to ensure that a potential subscriber has a licence before making the service available.
The more difficult issue arises if the government wants to compel the service providers to collect the licence fee and pay it over to the SABC.
Services like Netflix are typically provided on a month-to-month agreement, which complicates the traditional annual TV license fee collections.
Another problem is that many people subscribe to two or more streaming services. “Which one will bear the primary responsibility of collecting the licence fee?” Jacobsberg asked.
Looking at device-based licensing, he said the current definition of a “television set” in terms of Television licence Fees Regulations is wide enough to include smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
This does, however, raise a question regarding retailers of these devices, and network service providers who provide the devices as part of a package to subscribers.
“Should they in fact be insisting on seeing every customer’s TV licence before they supply the device?” Jacobsberg asked.
There are also questions about the legal authority of the SABC to delegate the authority to collect licence fees to businesses in the private sector.
Jacobsberg’s comments echoed those of MultiChoice CFO Tim Jacobs who said it would be difficult to implement the collection process under current law.
“Right now, the regulations do not allow broadcast services to collect licence fees. It’s not even a debate at the moment,” Jacobs said.
He added that DStv’s customers often subscribe to and drop packages throughout the year, which would make it difficult to calculate and manage licence fees.
“The question becomes how do you charge and how do you recover that money? It’s really complicated when you get into the real detail behind it,” Jacobs explained.