The South African Broadcasting Commission (SABC), South Africa’s public broadcaster, operates four television channels and 22 radio stations and is the largest media outlet in South Africa. The SABC has been under scrutiny over the last few months about editorial decisions taken by the SABC that many have called censorship, foremost a decision to not broadcast violent protest images. Chief Operations Officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng is responsible for these decisions, although he denies that they constitute censorship.

The censorship allegedly began with MetroFM in February this year when presenter Rams Mabote did not take any open line calls from listeners during an interview with Durban-based businessman Vivian Reddy, who has strong ties to the ANC. In a memo published on 28 February by City Press titled “SABC bans radio callers”, Metro FM programme manager Tony Soglo said, “Communication has been sent to all radio stations to stop having open lines for this current period before the local government elections. This is done to protect the station and the SABC against anybody who could potentially use the platform for their own benefit and also use it for electioneering.”

In March the SABC news show On The Record with Vuyo Mvoko was cancelled abruptly. According to a City Press article titled “Mvoko’s show now off the record” published on 20 March, there was a heated argument between Mvoko and his bosses over airing a show on alleged state capture by the Guptas. It is alleged that Mvoko’s superiors argued that there was no way he could do a show about the Guptas without painting President Jacob Zuma in a bad light.

Other controversial decisions include the banning of reading and discussing newspaper headlines on SABC radio and a policy dictating that all SABC radio stations must play 90% local music for a trial period of three months.

In May this year Motsoeneng announced that footage of violent acts during service delivery protests would no longer be aired by the SABC. A media statement released by the broadcaster on 26 May said the destruction of property would no longer be shown, although the SABC would “continue to cover news without fear or favour”. Motsoeneng also said in the statement that “[i]t is regrettable that these actions are disrupting many lives, and as a responsible public institution we will not assist these individuals to push their agenda that seeks media attention. As a public service broadcaster we have a mandate to educate the citizens, and we therefore have taken this bold decision to show that violent protests are not necessary.”

Journalists reacted with outrage to these decisions, and the civil rights group Right2Know protested outside the SABC headquarters. These protests were not covered by SABC, which led to three senior journalists being suspended due to disagreements about the decision not to cover the protest. Acting chief executive officer of the SABC Jimi Matthews resigned from his position, saying in a resignation letter posted on Twitter, “For many months, I have compromised the values that I hold dear under the mistaken belief that I could be more effective inside the SABC than outside, passing comment from the side-lines, [and], in the process the prevailing corrosive atmosphere has impacted negatively on my moral judgment and made me complicit in many decisions which I am not proud of.”

Lukhanyo Calata, an SABC journalist, was charged by the SABC for contravening its rules, allegedly for criticising its recent decisions and participating in protests against the broadcaster. He said in an article “#BlackFriday: Call to unite against censorship” published on IOL on 1 July, “If we don’t show one aspect of a protest, then we are also not going to show an aspect of another story. It starts off small and then it escalates into something so much bigger than any of us would have ever imagined.”

In an interview, an SABC journalist, who wished to remain anonymous but whose identity is known to Perdeby, said that the policy would have to be looked at holistically and that it was a very shallow observation that [the executive decisions taken by the SABC] were just censorship and that we [the SABC] should be showing everything”. However, he did acknowledge that it was “theoretically true the SABC should be showing everything”. The journalist added that “[w]hen policy itself came out, the main reason behind it [was that] the powers behind it believe[d] that showing the result of violent protest as a means for people to get attention encouraged it. So from that standpoint, we did not want to promote the use of violence as a means of getting a result.”

They went on to elaborate further: “If you look at situations like Vuwani, certain elements of the population used violent means, destroying property which ran into the millions. Schools burnt down, public buildings burnt down because they could not agree with the demarcation and the leadership of the community. They used violent means and got attention, everybody went out there, but now look where Vuwani is, there’s very little follow-up. And now you’re sitting with a community that’s lost several schools, kids now having to play catch-up on exams and curriculum, so from that standpoint, self-censorship to that degree was a necessity, but when you think of it from a journalism standpoint, that’s something we shouldn’t be doing. We should be showing everything because our mandate as journalists [and] a news organisation is to show the truth and report on the truth, so there’s a lot of layers.”

The journalist concluded: “It’s an executive decision; [it] wasn’t a decision that was taken from bottom up with journalists and producers complaining all the way up and then decided at the top. It was a top down decision and we’re all now trying to live through it.”

Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi has supported the decision to no longer broadcast violent protests, saying in a media statement published on 30 May on the Department of Communication’s website, “We unequivocally condemn the destruction of public and private infrastructure. It is our belief that the decision by the public broadcaster not to show footage of people burning public institutions such as schools and libraries, in any of its news bulletins, will go a long way to discourage attention seeking anarchists.”

In an article published on 8 July on EWN titled “Decision to ban airing of violent protests was fair – Mughave”, SABC board chairperson Mbulaheni Mughave said, “The ANC could not dictate terms to the broadcaster, as it was accountable to the South African public.” He also said, “It can’t be the ANC only which is a stakeholder. We listen to the views of different stakeholders and I am not sure when we tied the knot with the ANC.”

Motsoeneng has denied that the SABC is guilty of censorship in an EWN article titled “Motsoeneng rejects Icasa ruling on SABC”, published on 11 July. The COO said, “I want to deal with the issue of this hullabaloo, because it is still hullabaloo when people talk ‘censorship’. I don’t know what the SABC is censoring.” He went on to say, “If you talk about censorship, because you know English better I think – because you are clever people, I think all newsrooms censor stories every day.”

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has ruled that the editorial changes banning the showing of violent protests be withdrawn, saying they are not in line with the Broadcasting Act or the Bill of Rights. As explained by the High Court in the case Freedom of Expression Institute versus Chair, Complaints and Compliance Committee: “The SABC is a public broadcaster funded by the taxpayer to provide the highest standards of journalism and fair, unbiased, impartial and independent news coverage. Whereas a private citizen or broadcaster may freely take political sides and promote party political objectives, a public broadcaster may not use public money to do so.” Icasa’s Complaints and Compliance Committee said, “In the present context, the SABC has categorically imposed an absolute restraint on its newsroom and there is nothing in the Broadcasting Act or the licences that permits this … [s]uch absolutism is totally foreign to our new democracy based on freedom of expression and especially, for this case, the right to receive information which is in the public interest.”

After initially rejecting this ruling, Mughave said in an 11 July EWN article titled “SABC responds to Icasa’s ruling on censorship” that their lawyers are looking into the matter and that if the legal advisers’ “advice is that we are going to review this matter with relevant authorities, which would include the High Court and the Constitutional Court – that is what we are going to do.”

In a post titled “SABC censorship weakens SA’s democracy” published on his blog Constitutionally Speaking on 12 July, Constitutional law expert Prof. Pierre de Vos explains that the public interest is not based on what interests the public, but rather “freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the Constitution”, and imparting the necessary information to the public, allowing them to form their own views about matters concerning them and their country. Prof. De Vos also said, “The SABC has the right to decide in an impartial, unbiased and fair manner whether the broadcasting of specific images of a specific event (for example, a sex tape of some or other B grade celebrity or minor politician or sports star) would be in the public interest. What it cannot do is to order its newsroom to exclude in its entirety the broadcasting of material of a certain category of news that is potentially in the public interest. Any absolute prohibition by the SABC of the broadcasting of certain activities – for example, the burning of public property by persons complaining about service delivery – will therefore be unlawful”. As Icasa’s Complaints and Compliance Committee explained, “An [entire] subject, as such, may never be blocked from SABC television or radio – South Africa is not, as in the apartheid era, a dictatorship.”

On 19 July SABC journalists Vuyo Mvoko‚ Thandeka Gqubule‚ Busisiwe Ntuli and Lukhanyo Calata were dismissed by the SABC. The previous day journalists Krivani Pillay‚ Jacques Steenkamp‚ Foeta Krige and Suna Venter were dismissed. All of the dismissed journalists had previously been suspended by the SABC after raising objections to the events currently transpiring at the state broadcaster. The so called “SABC 8” had lodged an urgent application with the Constitutional Court to have the charges laid against them by the SABC, which were the reason for their suspensions, declared unlawful.

On 20 July the Pretoria High Court granted an interdict sought by the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) against the SABC, overturning the SABC’s decision not to screen images of violent protests. This was after the SABC conceded to the terms of a settlement that was negotiated between the two parties, reports The Citizen in a 20 July article titled “SABC bows to Suzman Foundation interdict”. In a 20 July article by SABC News titled “Icasa welcomes SABC’s decision to comply with its order”, the SABC’s laywers sent a letter to Icasa – only hours after the settlement with HSF was reached – saying that the SABC would abide by Icasa’s 11 July ruling.


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