How much does government spend on advertising? Where does it spend this money? Has it done its homework to make sure it’s spending wisely when it does spend on adverting? These are some of the questions that could be answered by an access to information request, made in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA), (a PAIA Request) this past February. The request was made by SAHA in collaboration with, and on behalf of Michael Moss, who is researching the relationship between state advertising, media buying and editorial independence.
The PAIA Request
Alas the office of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) has failed to respond to, or even to acknowledge receipt of, the request. While disappointing this was not entirely unexpected: the Access to Information Network (ATI Network) reports that, over the period 1 August 2015 to 31 July 2016, only 40,1% of PAIA requests submitted by Network members were responded to within the time-frame prescribed in PAIA. The GCIS’ failure to provide a decision within 30 days is, by law, deemed to be a refusal of access to the information requested. SAHA has a legal right to challenge the deemed refusal by submitting an appeal to the GCIS, which the GCIS is obliged, by law, to send on to the Minister of Communications for a decision. PAIA also places the duty to notify SAHA, of the Minister’s decision on SAHA’s appeal, on the GCIS.
On 4 April 2017 SAHA appealed the GCIS’ deemed refusal of access, somewhat (although not entirely) hopeful that the GCIS would fulfill its legal duty, and provide the appeal to the Minister, and that a favourable decision might be forth-coming out of the appeal. Unfortunately this was not to be. As with the request, GCIS failed to even acknowledge receipt of the appeal, never mind forward a decision from the Minister to SAHA. As is the case with decisions on requests, a failure to provide a decision on an appeal, within a prescribed timeframe, is deemed to be a refusal of the appeal. At this stage our appeal is also deemed refused. And, as was the case with the request decision, the failure to respond to the appeal was again not entirely unexpected: the ATI Network reports that, over the 2015/2016 reporting period, 64.1% of appeals were deemed to have been dismissed. The failure to respond to the appeal within time means that SAHA is now entitled to challenge the deemed refusal of the appeal through the courts, an option SAHA is currently exploring due to the keen public interest in this information.
The Public Interest
Like all public procurement, government advertising should be done in accordance with section 217 of the Constitution. Section 217 requires that procurement be ‘fair, equitable, transparent and cost-effective’. Procurement in the context of government spending on advertising is distinct from many other forms of procurement, because both government advertising and the spending by government on advertising perform critical public functions. Government advertising facilitates communication from the state to citizens and, more critically, government spending on advertising makes up a part of the income that sustains media outlets financially, enabling them to perform their critical democratic function of contributing towards freedom of expression. In this way, government advertising is effectively a form of indirect media subsidy which can be used to the financial benefit of some outlets, and the detriment of others. The public should thus know which outlets receive government advertising support, in what quantities and why. This is especially important in the current context where changes to the way in which media is distributed and consumed has disrupted the business model for journalism, leaving many outlets financially vulnerable.
It is our hope that in pushing GCIS for compliance with this request we will help ensure this information does become public knowledge.