New legislation aimed at shaking up the Independent Communications Authority South Africa (ICASA) has been attacked by opposition parties worried that the regulator will lose its much touted independent status. On Thursday a bill amending the status, functions and even the name of ICASA was finally tabled after being held back whilst the equally controversial Convergence Bill was being considered by Parliament. But a number of dissenting voices have criticised the proposed changes at ICASA, not least a plan to give power over the selection of the regulator’s councillors to the Minister of Telecommunications, instead of Parliament.
Dene Smuts, communications spokesman for the Democratic Alliance outlined his party’s concerns in an article in the Sunday Times: ‘We will not liberate the pent-up potential of electronic communications in South Africa if they are not regulated by an independent body which has the confidence of a sector in which the government still holds 38% of (national PTO) Telkom, 30% of the second network operator and 100% of the enormous (broadcaster) SABC.’ The bill extends ICASA’s policing powers and proposes that the regulator’s name be changed to the Electronic Communications Authority of South Africa, which, Smuts pointedly notes, removes the word ‘independent’ from its moniker.
ICASA regulates the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors having taken over the responsibilities of the South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (SATRA) and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in July 2000. The Convergence Bill, meanwhile, was drafted in February 2004 with the aim of drawing together all sectors of the communications and broadcasting industries and establishing a level playing field to encourage competition, but the authorities have been slow to pass it. The draft bill was released for consultation by a parliamentary committee in March 2005, and is currently being tweaked to tackle numerous concerns over its lack of clarity.