Mail & Guardian news editor, Charles Leonard, posted a comment on Facebook late on Tuesday night. It was the first that would unleash a storm of protest at what is seen as more censorship by the public broadcaster.
“Madness at Metro! Just seen this re-tweet from my friend Sam Mkokeli (B Day pol editor): Someone at SABC has just decided that myself, @msmkokeli and @cornishft are not supposed to be on Metro to discuss Mangaung and media. This discussing [sic] involving Sam, Sithe Msomi & an FT journo was pulled by some powerful person high up in the SABC. Scary!!!”
His comment unleashed a storm of commentary, not favourable to the SABC. In fact, for those who worked as journalists during apartheid, it was a scary reminder of the past. Charl Durand posted: I have this memory of PW Botha putting in a late night call to Auckland Park through a landline hooked straight into the newsreader’s ear. Not much has changed at the SABC. Radio Regering!”
That was just the start of what has become (yet) another SABC ‘blacklisting’ scandal. As the stories were filed, and social networks buzzed, the SABC finally came clean, admitting that acting COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and radio group executive Lesley were responsible for stopping a live Metro FM talk show debate on the ANC’s upcoming national conference. The theme was Mangaung and the media. And those invited to discuss the issue were, in fact, from the media. The media representatives were top journalists: Business Day’s political editor, Sam Mkokeli: Sunday Times’ political editor, S’thembiso Msomi and Financial Times bureau chief, Andrew England.
That wasn’t good enough for Motsoeneng and Ntloko who felt that a talk show on Mangaung lacked balance and fairness without an ANC representative present, and thus contravened the SABC’s editorial policy. Absolutely unrepentant, the pair went on to say their decision was not politically motivated, and that the talk show host, Sakina Kamwendo, would be investigated and that there would be “consequences” if it was found she did not follow SABC editorial policy.
“We mean business at the SABC, this is leadership at its best,” Motsoeneng said.
Stakeholders don’t agree. Civil society organisation, the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, which represents unions, NGOs, community media and the independent film and television sector, was outraged.
“SOS is dismayed by these reports which mirror all too closely the same such pulling of a scheduled interview with Julius Malema earlier in September this year. The Coalition is further dismayed that these reports would emerge not three weeks after the SABC’s own admission to having violated its own Charter, editorial policies and the broadcasting code in the six-year long blacklisting case saga, and, being the case, would undermine its own commitment to upholding and enforcing these in the promotion of freedom of expression and a diversity of views going forward,” it said in a statement.
It’s a view shared by the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa. “For the ‘red-telephone’ to ring and a scheduled interview canned is simply not acceptable to say the least,” said Tuwani Gumani, general secretary of MWASA.
“Mangaung represents more than just any other conference,” general secretary, Tuwani Gumani, said. “This is a conference of the ruling party. Warts- and-all the ANC is the ruling party and activities even insinuated perceptions matter in many heavy ways. It will therefore be a matter of both national and human interest that the free-flow of information surrounding the decisions made at this critical conference is encouraged and supported.”
SOS queried the process by which the talk show was canned. “In defending its decision, the SABC placed reliance on its own editorial policies yet failed to clarify whether pulling a planned interview just minutes before it was set to start was the best or only way to ensure that the important principles of objectivity, accuracy, fairness, impartiality and balance were upheld,” it said.
The Democratic Alliance was even more outspoken, calling for Motsoeneng’s head. The DA will request the SABC’s board of directors to relieve Motsoeneng “of his responsibilities regarding the governing of SABC programming content”.
The SABC was supposed to “Provide significant news and public affairs programming which meets the highest standards of journalism, as well as fair and unbiased coverage, impartiality, balance and independence from government, commercial and other interests”, said DA communications spokesperson, Marian Shinn.
“In the two months since the board appointed Mr Motsoeneng to control news, television, radio and sport, his most obvious blunders have been the insistence that the terms ‘Nkandlagate’ and ‘compound’ not be used to describe President Zuma’s luxurious rural enclave, and the banning of the Fish and Chip Company’s television advert that featured the President,” she said.
SOS accused the SABC of making editorial decisions on an “ad hoc” basis. “Does this mean that as we head up to the ruling party’s elective conference or any other such political event of national importance, no dialogue may nor will be facilitated by the public broadcaster unless the ANC has a representative present? Were this the case, this morning’s edition of SAfm’s Workers on Wednesday which posed the question ‘Cosatu and Mangaung – What’s in it for the Working Class?’ could not have proceeded!
“This not only suggests that the SABC’s approach to editorial is an ad hoc one which is simply not grounded in principle, indeed, this controversy further edifies the established perception that the public broadcaster is no more than a tool with and through which the ruling party secures and displays its hold on political power,” it said.
It’s a standpoint that the ANC Youth League agrees with. The League have also come in for censorship on the part of the SABC when the public broadcaster pulled an interview with former leader, Julius Malema, from the same show.
“Despite who gave these tragic orders or for what purpose, censorship of views is contrary to the rights of freedom of expression enshrined in our Constitution,” the youth league said in a statement, and accused the SABC of becoming “a ridiculous pawn in the political theatre they are expected to impartially report on”.
Meanwhile, the fate of the reporter who was trying to do her job in a fair and balanced manner lies in the hands of those who gagged her. The Star reported that Kamwendo told the journalists waiting outside the studio that she had been instructed by “someone higher” that the show couldn’t continue. “Later, she was heard to be crying on air when she announced that the she was not going to have the journalists discussing Mangaung any more, and opened the line for calls.”