“But what Zuma is showing is that he knows that what matters for the ANC is not the commercial, print media, but the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which gets by far the biggest share of audience.
“That is why the ANC has so much to say about the inadequacies of the print media, but is so silent on problems at the SABC, which can be relied on to block opposition adverts, play down Nkandla and pursue the ANC narrative. It is why it was prepared to lend R1.5bn to the SABC and give only a few million for the Media Development and Diversity Agency to support community media.” — Anton Harber ‘SABC is key weapon in ANC’s arsenal’ – Business Day 8//5/2014
“With the unified reaction and sniggering from the press corps it’s become abundantly clear now that the entire South African media and press are in agreement that the South African public broadcaster has become a joke and openly recognise that the SABC is biased in its news coverage.” — TV authority, Thinus Ferreira on the way EFF leader Julius Malema trashed the SABC at a post- election press conference.
William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa will be minutely analysing the SABC’s coverage of the election but the key element is not what it has covered but what it has not covered. Censorship by omission remains the key weapon in its arsenal. With millions of people dependent on the SABC for their news – mostly on radio – in their own language, it simply does not broadcast what Luthuli House wishes to keep from these listeners and viewers.
This article looks at three compelling examples of censorship by omission – the state broadcaster’s stock-in-trade.
One of the most startling yet least surprising statements about media coverage of the election came from the man who, from nothing, created in little under a year a team and a message that earned his party 25 seats in the National Assembly.
Speaking on Redi Thlabi’s Talk Radio 702 programme, Julius Malema testified not only to the extraordinary degree of control Luthuli House exercises over the content of the SABC’s news coverage but also to the extent to which the ANC bows to the wishes of the Gupta family when it comes to the choice of executives at the SABC and Icasa.
Malema has previously hinted at this in a speech which is available on YouTube [watch clip below] but, as Thlabi pointed out in her Sunday Times column, never in such detail.
The column, headlined ‘Boot is on the other foot as SABC silences Malema’, is not available online to anyone who is not a subscriber to the newspaper so I have taken the liberty of transcribing this section of her column.
But it was his bombshell about the public broadcaster and the regulatory body, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa that had tongues wagging. He claimed the Gupta family was instrumental in the appointment of SABC and Icasa management. Further, that the public broadcaster’s bulletins were influenced by Luthuli House and that senior leaders such as Jessie Duarte routinely phoned the SABC to question editorial decisions.
“’We used to do those things. We would call them and ask: ‘Why is our story not the top story?’ ”And in the next bulletin, theirs would indeed be the leading story.
You may argue that it has long been known that the SABC does the bidding of the ANC. But this is the first time that someone who was party to it — someone who actively dictated to the SABC — has used a public platform to confirm this outrageous, undemocratic behaviour. It is a huge admission to make. It is one that we, as taxpayers and people who have a vested interest in the public broadcaster, should not dismiss or treat with nonchalance.
It is not as if Thlabi, née Direko, is not familiar with the SABC’s banning modus operandi. As I pointed out in my article, ‘The horse has bolted: the SABC and Project Spear’, in June 2006 Redi Direko and Ben Cashdan, who ran a company called Broad Daylight Films ,handed to the SABC a documentary which they had produced and which the Corporation had commissioned. It was called Thabo Mbeki Unauthorised. When the SABC discovered that it was not a video hagiography they refused to broadcast it and sought a legal injunction preventing Direko and Cashdan from even discussing their film. The two then defiantly repackaged the film as Thabo Mbeki Unbanned and it was shown to appreciative audiences and packed houses at the Durban International film Festival, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and smaller venues throughout the country in places like Soweto, Khayelitsha and Kwa Mashu.
As the old saying goes, he who laughs last… I pointed out in my article of 19 December 2012 on this website that the trade union BEMAWU confirmed complaints by its members after Hlaudi Motsoeneng had effectively used the tactics of Snuki Zikalala to blacklist Malema. If anything, this increased public support for Malema and brought the Corporation into further disrepute as confirmed by its own (suppressed) market research, Project Kindle. At a post election press conference, Malema trashed the state broadcaster.
To me, the bombshell of the elections was the considered decision of Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM) – a social movement of shack dwellers – to distance itself completely from the ANC and to endorse the Democratic Alliance.
The shack dwellers represent, in our context, Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and it is this constituency which the ANC claims to champion and which its members claim to support by strewing faeces in high profile public areas in the Western Cape, where no child has died in a pit lavatory.
ABM’s press release carried on Politicsweb presents a very different and hugely disturbing perspective. ABM claims that the ANC has relentlessly persecuted it as an organisation and its members, some of whom have been murdered and that service delivery is dependent upon and confined to card-carrying members of the ANC.
The fact that the poorest of the poor, the most oppressed in society could claim with such bitter vehemence that the ANC had become their oppressors is emphasised by the fact that daily service delivery protests by shack dwellers have plunged the country into what amounts to persistent, low-level insurrection.
This was a message that Luthuli House did not want broadcast into the millions of households that the SABC reaches through radio and television and its Auckland Park minions meekly heeded the call.
I specifically monitored the main SABC’s 7 pm English television news bulletin after the news of ABM’s decision broke and saw nothing. I also heard nothing on radio news bulletins and this censorship by omission is confirmed if you type Abahlali baseMjondolo into the search bar on the SABC news website. There is a story datelined 13 April which said that ABM was wary of voting again so the SABC was well aware of their discontent but broadcasting that the organisation had not only turned against the ANC but was calling for support of the main opposition party was a bridge too far for Auckland Park.
One can understand and even empathise with that.
They only had to look at Phil Molefe’s two-year and continuing suspension for daring to disregard the publicly-issued injunction by the fervent media freedom exponent, Blade Nzimande, to not broadcast news featuring Julius Malema to realise that their jobs would be on the line. (Nzimande subsequently described media coverage of Nkandla as “white people’s lies”, which presumably means that, by his reckoning, Advocate Thuli Madonsela is not African).
They had witnessed the speed with which the disgraced former SABC CEO, Lulama Mokhobo, removed Molefe on trumped up charges. She said that he had refused to give her the daily news diary when it was a mouse click away on the SABC’s computer system and then orchestrated his replacement with the embarrassing but more compliant Motsoeneng.
Broadcasting the ABM decision to endorse the Democratic Alliance would have seen them joining the UIF queue with unseemly but understandable haste.
Churches silenced again
In my article ‘SABC silences church and other voices’ I outlined how the SABC had censored by omission criticism of the ANC in general and Jacob Zuma in particular by leading Anglican clerics such as Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and his predecessor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In late April it was the turn of the Zion Christian Church which has 12 million congregants throughout Southern Africa.
Its leader, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, called on all South Africans not only to vote but to vote for “smart and intelligent” leaders who would not embezzle public funds. “(Pray for) the wisdom to elect leaders who will not forget about you once you have elected them. Leaders who do not confuse public funds with theirs,” he said.
The message could not have been more pointed but while the SABC broadcast his prayer for peace during the election there was, predictably, no mention of his call not to vote for corrupt politicians.
The third example of the SABC’s censorship by omission during the election relates to weathervane politicians whose malleable principles lead them to change allegiance just before elections.
The example I wish to cite relates to the Cape Town Press Club, the oldest in the country. In my time as a TV news reporter based in Cape Town I covered many speeches delivered there but, once Jeffrey Twala was appointed as regional editor in 1998, we were sent there less and less as he saw our role as no longer relating to news stories but, instead, to covering up ANC corruption on the one hand, promoting the party on the other and giving as much adverse publicity to the Democratic Alliance as possible.
Nevertheless, the SABC’s Sea Point news room is on the Press Club’s mailing list and its secretary, Gloria Barret, told me that Twala was personally emailed the invitation relating to the ANC MP who would the guest speaker at its luncheon on 23 April. It read:
“African National Congress MP Salam Abram, a member of the agriculture parliamentary portfolio committee, shot to the attention of the media in October last year when he allegedly called Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister “a liar”. He was subsequently charged with bringing the ruling party into disrepute and ordered to appear before an internal party disciplinary hearing. This was never held. Abram, a parliamentarian since the 1980s, will make an important announcement at the press club about his political allegiance. He will also detail the drama associated with the tenure of the agriculture minister, something which he says has been deeply damaging to the image of the ANC and the agriculture ministry. He will also focus on the ANC’s avoidance of having a debate on Nkandla.”
At the luncheon – with the SABC conspicuous by its absence – Abram, as stated in the press release, announced that he was leaving the ANC but not for another party. In announcing his resignation from the ANC, he effectively called the party’s chief whip, Stone Sizani, a liar. The SABC had, of course, given publicity to the fact that the ANC wished to discipline him for subtly indicating that he had the same high regard for the fishy fisheries minister, Tina Joemat- Pettersson as he had for Sizani.
Unsurprisingly, the SABC did not seek him out for a follow-up interview
Re-reading a preview I wrote in November last year predicting how the SABC would cover this election, I retract nothing.
In one of his exculpatory statements about Nkandla, President Zuma said that it was only “clever people” who were disturbed by the matter and when you watch this YouTube clip you realise that, by Zuma’s definition, Motsoeneng harbours not the slightest concern about Number One’s bucolic country retreat and how it was funded. This perception is buttressed by the PricewaterhouseCoopers skills audit which led to the TimesLive headline: ‘SABC run by dummies’.
Nevertheless, as one watches the clip one also has to acknowledge that the SABC has people of exceptional talent. You marvel at the icy professionalism, the extraordinary self-control of Leanne Manas as the barely articulate Motsoeneng mumbles and stumbles through the opportunity gifted him to him to “applaw” the SABC’s preparation for its election broadcast. Only she knows how she summoned up the will power to keep a straight face and to suppress the need to roll her eyes heavenwards in mute supplication.
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