“The spy tapes are probably the most explosive secret in SA’s political soap opera. They led to the dropping of Jacob Zuma’s corruption charges and paved his way to the presidency but attempts to get the tapes released have created turmoil and factionalism in the National Prosecuting Authority and led to a legal tussle that has lasted for years.” Right2Know State of the Nation Report 2014
“Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford used BGAN equipment to provide live coverage, from a moving truck, of the news network’s coverage of the liberation of Tripoli, Libya, in August 2011. This was done by the producer continuously readjusting the BGAN terminal to track the BGAN satellite.” Wikipedia ‘Broadband Global Area Network’
In February 2005 the Advertising Standards Authority ruled in favour of e.tv after the SABC had complained about the rival free-to-air broadcaster’s advertising slogan, ‘0% Propaganda’. Everybody knew what the slogan was about and what it was implying but the public broadcaster was thwarted because it could not prove its case.
I have often wondered whether the current eNCA advertising slogan, ‘Know more’ is not a play on the name of the media freedom lobby group, Right2Know.
Right2Know has just published its State of the Nation report for 2014 which indicates that the constitutional right of all South Africans to the right to know about matters that materially impact on their lives. The right of access to that information is increasingly being eroded by the ANC-led government.
The SABC as the largest media organisation in South Africa has an obligation to inform citizens. How it informs citizens is the issue. The only way in which one can assess its de facto news policy of censorship by omission is to compare its coverage of major news events which do not reflect well on the ANC in general with the coverage provided by the ‘No fear. No favour’ eNCA transmissions.
An obvious example was this week’s debate over the opposition parties motion of no confidence against Speaker Baleka Mbete on 16 September. eNCA carried the proceedings live for several hours dropping virtually everything else at peak news time. It crossed live to its reporter Lester Kiewit. There was no live crossing by the SABC to any one of its capable parliamentary reporters in the peak hour news slots on this story.
The SABC brags about its coverage of breaking news and this was breaking news. When it promotes the ANC in general and President Jacob Zuma in particular, however, the SABC will devote much of the first half of its news bulletin to that promotion. A telling case in point occurred the previous night when the SADC leaders met in Pretoria to discuss concerns about Lesotho and the DRC. The meeting was chaired by President Jacob Zuma and the report by the SABC’s senior political reporter, Vuyo Mvoko, was the lead story, lasted several minutes and dominated the first half of the bulletin.
The difference in the coverage of the two stories by the SABC was stark because the Pretoria one day summit gave the SABC the opportunity to show Zuma in a good light whereas the behaviour of the ANC MPs during the debate on September 16 was reprehensible so the state broadcaster played this story down and did not cross live to its reporters in Cape Town.
As the media freedom lobby group points out in the extract from its 2014 report which anchors this article, the Spy Tape story is of momentous political import and one can get an idea of how the ANC controls the dissemination of such information by comparing the 1pm television news bulletins of the SABC and eNCA on the Spy Tape handover story on 4 September.
By 12.40pm on that day eNCA started live streaming Helen Zille’s speech outside the High Court in Pretoria.
At 1pm eNCA’s television news bulletin led with this footage and much of the bulletin was devoted to the story and to background analysis with studio guests.
In contrast, the SABC 1pm television news broadcast had no live pictures. All it had, so help me, was newsreader Natasha Thorp looking extremely embarrassed doing, wait for this… a telephone crossing over, wait for this… a map of Pretoria with a reporter whose stilted, hesitant response indicated that he was reading from a report he had previously written.
On 28 August the Supreme Court of Appeal gave the NPA five days to hand over the tapes – five days for the SABC’s head of news, Jimi Matthews and the regional manager in Pretoria, Alwyn Kloppers to prepare for the live crossing on 4 September for the first available SABC TV news bulletin on which the story could be carried – 11pm.
A little technical background
For the first few decades of television broadcasts, live coverage was the exclusive domain of the big Outside Broadcast (OB) trucks which are a familiar feature at big sports fixtures.
Then, in 1979, the International Maritime Satellite Organisation (Inmarsat), started using satellite technology to facilitate maritime rescues. That technology, in turn, led to the Broadband Global Area Network and BGAN modems made it possible to easily broadcast from the field. As Wikipedia puts it: “The value of BGAN terminals is that unlike other satellite Internet services which require bulky and heavy satellite dishes to connect, a BGAN terminal is about the size of a laptop and thus can be carried easily. The network is provided by Inmarsat and uses three geostationary satellites called I-4 to provide almost global coverage.”
BGAN modems quite literally hit the news in the Libyan civil war of 2011 but, as Sky News reporter Alex Crawford points out in her book, Colonel Gaddaffi’s Hat (HarperCollins 2012), they were notoriously unreliable: “Every television journalist working today will tell you how temperamental a Began can be. You can be in a totally secure environment on solid ground in the back streets of say France or Italy or comfortable Sardinia (substitute any well known location where you have good infrastructure) and the Began won’t work, for no discernible reason. It’s just having an off day.”
Fast forward to 2014 and technology has made life for television news crews a lot easier.
At the beginning of this year the SABC replaced its BGANS with LiveU modems which enable a camera operator to transmit sound and visuals directly into the newsroom from a backpack modem. eNCA purchased the equivalent Quicklink Merlin Backpack and it would have used this technology for its live streaming coverage from the High Court in Pretoria on 4 September. These modems were not only available to SABC news camera operators in Auckland Park, they were also made available to regional news offices which would have included Pretoria where the Spy Tapes were handed to Zille.
Perhaps the SABC can explain why its LiveU modems were not available for the Spy Tape story at 1pm on September 4 given that it had had five days in which to prepare for coverage of a profoundly significant news story. This was enough time to set up an Outside Broadcast truck in the vicinity of the High Court in Pretoria had the SABC so wished and its OB trucks are world class.
In the same week that the SABC failed to cover the Spy Tape handover story live, there were two other examples of news bias and censorship by omission.
On Sunday, 31 August, South Africans awoke to front page leads in the Sunday Times and City Press about a letter that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela had written to President Jacob Zuma about his bucolic country retreat at Nkandla.
This was to dominate the news headlines for the next few days and eNCA, unsurprisingly, led with the story on its main 7pm bulletin that night. The SABC did not lead with the story, indeed it had just one brief and fleeting reference to it.
No, it had been working long and hard for several days on its own lead story which took up much of the first half of its bulletin. This was a ferocious attack on the EFF for its ‘Pay back the money’ shenanigans in parliament.
The EFF was allowed a brief sentence or two and then the ANC Big Guns were marched up in serried ranks with Blade Nzimande leading the denunciatory charge. All the various ANC leagues and affiliates were given a turn to harangue Julius Malema and his cohorts. (If memory serves me correctly the MK Veterans were represented by spy detector Kebby Maphatsoe who has, if Chris Vick is to be believed, a gladiatorial courage which rivals Richard the Lionheart).
The only reference to Madonsela’s letter in this frenzied hysteria was a contemptuous throwaway line in a reference to her by Jeremy Cronin.
Then, on 3 September, in reply to a question at a meeting of the parliamentary portfolio committee on Communication it was revealed that COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s salary had increased eightfold in four years and that he now earns more than President Jacob Zuma and twice as much as the acting chief executive officer of the SABC, Tian Olivier.
The question came from the DA’s shadow minister on communication, Gavin Davis, who was later to reveal that a survey of media coverage showed that while the news editors at 42 media outlets had felt the story worth covering, the SABC had censored it.
In a press release he stated: “I have today written to the SABC’s Head of News, Jimi Matthews, to request that he:
“Confirms the DA’s analysis that the SABC did not cover the story
“If so, explain the SABC’s decision not to run the story despite its obvious newsworthiness
“Indicates who at the SABC took the decision not to cover the story.
“If a story is in the public interest, the SABC is expected to cover it. We cannot have a situation where the SABC refuses to broadcast stories just because they are damaging to the SABC’s reputation.”
If he thinks the SABC is going to reply, all I can say is: Dream on, as the following example illustrates:
20 February 2010 – Gareth van Onselen, then DA executive director of communications, reveals in a press release that, with the ANC’s education policy a catastrophic disaster, the DA had notified all media that Zille would be the main speaker at a national education campaign in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria. An hour before the event, SABC TV pulled its cameras off the launch, refusing to give an explanation for this and despite confirming that they would be in attendance a few days prior. Indeed they confirmed the night before that they would be there.
“Every other media outlet in the country was present at the launch to cover primarily the speech by DA Leader Helen Zille. Even SABC Radio was in attendance. It is indisputable that this event constituted significant news.
“The DA tried to contact four or five key individuals at the SABC and none of them were able or willing to provide an explanation for why the cameras were pulled.
“The public broadcaster’s refusal to provide any explanation for why it withdrew its cameras suggests that it has an ulterior motive, and not one that has to do with accurately, objectively and fairly reporting the news to the South African public.
“We will be taking the matter up with the head of news, Paul Molefe and look forward to the SABC’s explanation.”
No explanation was forthcoming then and there will be no response now.
That is three major stories reflecting, in a single week, the SABC’s news bias.
From a Right2Know viewpoint this is of profound importance. There is a lot of research which makes the self-evident point that people want their news coverage disseminated in their home language and for the majority of South Africans – millions of them – that news comes from the SABC. So, whenever Luthuli House wants a significant news story downplayed or not mentioned at all, the SABC obliges.
The only way that South Africans in general and media scholars in particular can keep track of this pervasive breach of the Broadcasting Act and the SABC’s internal code of ethical news coverage is to constantly monitor and compare how a conventional news organisation, eNCA and the SABC, cover major stories such as the Spy Tape handover.
Thus it was that William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa monitored the SABC TV news bulletins on 10 December last year and was able to confirm a City Press story that the SABC censored the booing of JZuma at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service at the FNB Stadium in Soweto.
“MMA notes with concern the story carried by City Press in which it is alleged that SABC news management deliberately omitted any mention of the booing of President Jacob Zuma during the Mandela Memorial Service from its headline news bulletins on the 10th of December 2013.
“MMA has viewed the headline news bulletins from SABC1, SABC 2 and SABC 3 and can confirm that no mention of the booing incident was made in any of the bulletins.”
The news of this SABC censorship was then conveyed to billions of people throughout the world by foreign broadcast, print and internet journalists covering the memorial service – to the immense detriment of South Africa’s image as a country which promotes media freedom and the right of access to information.
Ideally a media-related NGO such as Right2Know or the SOS Coalition should create a cyberspace timeline such as the one created by City Press earlier this year which tracks the recent history of SABC censorship and makes it a permanent and constantly available record.
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