The truth behind SABC CEO Lulama Mokhobo’s placing of head of news and current affairs, Phil Molefe, on special leave is unclear, and the public broadcaster is certainly not airing its dirty laundry for the rest of us to see. But that hasn’t stopped stakeholders – from the ANC Youth League to media workers’ unions – from pronouncing on the issue.
The Youth League is apparently “disappointed and disgusted” by Mokhobo’s decision, accusing her of making “factionally influenced and motivated decisions”. The Communications Workers Union, on the other hand, has “a biased in terms of broadcasting”. The Media Workers of South Africa Association (MWASA) says it is “deeply concerned by the latest media reports on the repeat of the shenanigans that have seen the SABC losing its credibility as a Public Broadcaster in the eyes of its audiences, contemporaries and competitors”.
The furore began on late on Tuesday afternoon when a terse announcement from the SABC revealed tha tMolefe had been placed on special leave. SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said Molefe was placed on special leave with immediate effect. He declined to give the reasons but said the matter was pending discussions between Molefe and Mokhobo. Head of television news, Jimi Matthews, would fulfil Molefe’s duties while he was away.
Then rumours started flying. It was due to Molefe’s insistence on major coverage of Julius Malema, said The Star. Molefe had defied Luthuli House orders to tone down Juju stories. The Sowetan reported unnamed sources as saying Molefe was put on special leave because he was accused of leaking information to the newspaper and the Sunday World about Motsoeneng. Others said he’d restructured the newsroom without Mokhobo’s approval, and demoted head of news, Jimi Matthews, the man now standing in for him. Still more said he refused to take orders from Mokhobo and the acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
Of course the SABC stayed mum, with Kganyago muttering about “speculative reports”. Of course, Kganyago, being a communications man, should know that the absence of information from the SABC will allow speculation to fill the vacuum.
The SOS Coalition says it has noted “with grave concern the latest developments at our public broadcaster the SABC”, the organisation said in a statement today.
“As respected media academic Franz Kruger comments, we will probably never know the truth. However, what we can say is that this speculation is not healthy for our public broadcaster. It deepens the disillusionment around the institution and citizens’ belief in its ability to play its public service broadcaster role,” SOS said.
SOS has called for “strong public statements from all stakeholders including all political parties, Parliament, the Minister, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and the SABC itself” and “a commitment from Parliament and ICASA to play their critical oversight roles and to thoroughly follow up on issues of good governance and accountability.”
SOS believes it is vital that the SABC Board and management give the public a vision for the news department. This includes “staffing of this department, their plans for the 24 hour news channel and programming plans for other new digital broadcasting channels.
“We need to know from the SABC board and management what their plans are to stabilise the SABC and to create a strong professional management team to ensure quality, local, public service programming on our screens. As regards this latest crisis, we need to be convinced that the placing of Mr. Molefe on special leave – and creating yet another gap at the management level – is in fact in the best interests of the public broadcaster and all viewers and listeners.”
Despite clear heads calling for a halt to speculation, this hasn’t stopped the stories. The Youth League said Mokhobo had “coerced” Molefe into taking special leave “due to his protection of SABC editorial policy and practices as reported in The Star newspaper”.
Strange how the ANCYL accuses newspapers of fabricating stories, but when it’s in their intersts to believe a story, they have no hesitation in doing so.
They then warned if her mission was to play factional politics, “her days as a CEOof the SABC are numbered”.
The CWU said it was “very worried about the negative publicity of SABC that is leaked by bitter people, senior and former managers together with board members and we suspect that all of these are because of tenders that are not given to them and their friends. We have been raising this matter that they are some senior staff members and board members of the SABC who are conniving with factionalist to destroy the SABC and certain progressive individuals”.
MWASA was more measured in its response. “The SABC is the public broadcaster, it must owe no allegiance to factions of the ruling or any political party, business or sections of the population. The SABC must cover and broadcast all news without fear nor favour, but only in service of the interests of the citizens of South Africa. It must never again be placed in the role of ‘his-master’s-voice’ as was the case in the days of Apartheid-South Africa. If it was unacceptable then, it is unacceptable now,” it said.
The UDM’s Bantu Holomisa also bought into the Malema story. ““It is funny how the same SABC senior management always pontificates about the editorial independence of its news department, when we, opposition parties, complained about the use of the National Broadcaster to promote the ruling party, paying no regard to the newsworthiness of the events. He said that putting someone on special leave for giving more airtime to one faction of the ruling party than the other, shows the paralysis the ruling party’s infighting has caused to an already dysfunctional SABC.
Perhaps it’s time that the SABC told the public, for whom it is supposed to broadcast, just what the hell is going on in the news department. With ratings flying out of the window, and a problem with perception, Mokhobo and her team should start building a newsroom we believe in.