If media reports are to be believed, last Friday the SABC finally commenced a disciplinary hearing for suspended SABC head of news and current affairs, Phil Molefe. Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi takes a deeper look at the issue and its implications for the public broadcaster.
In April this year, Molefe was placed on ‘special leave’ by GCEO, Lulama Mokhobo, amidst rumours of in-fighting over, among other things, leaking stories concerning SABC internal affairs to the media, restructuring his division without Mokhobo and acting COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s, go-ahead and, most prominently, asserting his editorial control over the SABC news diary.
While the public broadcaster has outright denied that these formed the basis for Mokhobo’s decision to place Molefe on special leave, citing confidential “HR policy matters” as the real cause, the SABC has certainly left a lot of room for speculation on the matter.
Whatever the reason for Molefe’s suspension, read against the series of governance and HR crises the SABC has been beleaguered with over the last six years, the independence of the SABC has become a very prescient concern for South Africans. Most significantly because of how these have been directly linked to state interference and ANC factionalism in some way or another. That, despite empty assurances to the contrary, the SABC cannot shake off the spectre of political interference in its content and operations raises questions about whether the SABC is, indeed, the public broadcaster as it purports to be or is, in actual fact, a State broadcaster through which party political ideological battles are waged.
It is trite to say that a fundamental tenet of media freedom is that the media should be materially and structurally independent of both political and commercial interests. Being trusted informants and mirrors of society, media needs to be able to speak across as well as be broadly representative of the communities whom they communicate with and about. As a public broadcaster, it suffices to say that the realisation of these principles should weigh more heavily on the SABC than anywhere else because of the unique position it occupies in the media space.
But is this really the case for the broadcaster?
In determining this, the first place to look is in the legal structure and governance of the SABC. In terms of the Broadcasting Act, the public broadcaster is incorporated as a public company with the State as its sole shareholder. Although the Act expressly accords it independence, given the nature of its relationship with the State, the minister of communications, representing the state’s interest in the broadcaster, has a great degree of unfettered power in the operations of the SABC.
As the state’s representative, the minister is solely responsible for and directly involved in determining several critical issues in the SABC’s governance and operations, all of which have a significant bearing on the editorial and institutional independence of the broadcaster. These include:
1. Being solely responsible for determining and reviewing the Memorandum and Articles of Association without any public consultation; and
2. Being duly empowered to play a direct role in the appointment of executive Board members.
In these ways, being directly accountable to the state through the minister, the SABC’s management is placed in the precarious position where they are overly concerned with and beholden to the attitudes of government as sole shareholder on editorial practices, rather than being driven by broader public interest concerns. And, despite consistent yet bald denials by the SABC, this has been starkly evidenced through several key scandals in these last six years.
The most prominent of these began in the wake of then deputy president Jacob Zuma’s dismissal by President Thabo Mbeki and the imminent battle for the mantle of the ANC and the Presidency. In 2006 Unauthorised: Mbeki, a documentary which took a highly critical look at Mbeki’s life, centralist governance style and involvement in Zuma’s demise, was twice pulled shortly before it was set to be broadcast.
The pulling of this documentary followed the 2005 canning of an interview with Zuma on the current affairs show Asikhulume, also at the last minute, as well as the suppression of the pro-Zuma song Msholozi by maskandi group Izingane Zoma by the broadcaster. This series of ostensibly politically influenced self-/indirect censorship by the SABC culminated in the controversial blacklisting scandal yet to be resolved by ICASA, almost six years later, in which political analysts who were perceived to be government or Mbeki detractors were blacklisted from giving commentary on all news and current affairs programmes on the broadcaster concerning government.
In 2007, in the build-up to the Polokwane watershed, the factional divisions between the SABC Board and its management became wider and more apparent, explaining the real reasons for the 2005/6 editorial crises. This resulted in its ultimate and untimely dissolution, marking the beginning of the leadership contestations and crises within the SABC. The legitimacy of the subsequent Board appointed at the end of 2007 was mired by reports of Luthuli House, in Mbeki, directly issuing a new preferred nominee list after the public nomination process had closed. This was further exacerbated by conflict between a pro-Mbeki management team and a Board which, by then, had switched to the Zuma camp, creating an impossible working relationship between the two, finally resulting in the passing of the Broadcasting Amendment Act which empowered Mbeki to dissolve the entire Board which he did in 2009.
Four years, three new Boards, as many CEOs and a R1.4-billion government loan which has further edified direct state control over the broadcaster later, the SABC finds itself trapped even deeper in the same quagmire. Despite yet more bald denials and assurances to the contrary, consistent reports of a board and executive management divided over internal ANC political battles, signified in part by the controversies around Molefe’s appointment, role and practice in the broadcaster, continue to occupy the media and discursive space. So what needs to happen in order to transform this destructive impasse in the SABC and release it from both extant and perceived undue influence from political and commercial interests?
If the SABC is to have any hope at securing real and sustainable independence, a number of major structural reformulations in how the entire public broadcasting framework is set up needs to happen. With the ICT policy review process which is poised to have a Green paper out by the end of this year in motion, it is hoped that these will happen. But this will take time. Time which, under the current financial and leadership instabilities which impact directly on the reliability of the broadcaster, the SABC just doesn’t have.
Right now, in the face of the of all the controversies around Phil Molefe, their implications on the editorial quality of the broadcaster and effect on the dwindling trust the public have in it, the SABC has the power and opportunity to do just one thing which will prove its desire and will to secure its independence. A ruling on the exact function and powers of the head of news and current affairs vis à vis the CEO as editor in chief is critical for getting clarity on exactly where editorial power is vested and extricating it from undue influence.
One such way is expressly delineating these roles, limiting the CEO’s powers and responsibilities to the overall strategic management of the SABC, leaving the head of news sufficiently empowered and singularly responsible for editorial decisions. Not only will this stem the possibility of these from being influenced by commercial sustainability considerations, but it also serves to limit the indirect editorial influence the state has on content through the Group CEO whom the minister directly appoints.
For public broadcasting in South Africa to survive and thrive, a complete revisioning of the role and function of the SABC needs to happen. This inherently involves committing it to full and unfettered editorial independence which is critical, robust and broadly representative of the public it serves. The broadcaster is, at this juncture, ideally placed to prove its commitment to fulfilling its mandate in this regard. As to whether it will take this opportunity up, only news reports following Molefe’s hearing will tell.
Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi is organiser for the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition.