OPINION: “Like millions of other South Africans I watched the unfolding drama of the SONA debate on television on the evening of 12 February, flicking between SABC and eNCA to compare how they were covering what was clearly a turning point in our evolving democracy.” Ed Herbst analyses the events that led up to civil society organisations and some media owners taking on Parliament and the ANC in court over parliament’s broadcasting policy.
“Parliament’s filming and broadcasting policy is unconstitutional as it clearly impinges on the right of the public to see and hear events within the legislature, advocate Steven Budlender argued in the Cape High Court on Friday.” – Parliament’s filming, broadcasting policy ‘unconstitutional’, Paul Vecchiatto Business Day 6/3/2015
“A female staff member of the SABC’s Cape Town broadcasting team has laid charges of assault against the public broadcaster’s head of news, Jimi Matthews, at the Cape Town Central Police Station. A case was also lodged with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) on Wednesday.” SABC staffer lays assault charges against news head.” Glenda Nevill, The Media Online 5/3/2015
South Africans will have to wait until 20 April to hear the outcome of last Friday’s full bench sitting in the Cape High Court on whether or not they are entitled to see how our politicians conduct themselves in parliament. The ANC, supported by it media proxy, the SABC, sought to prevent the nation from witnessing the carefully-rehearsed attack by brave, heavily armed men on the EFF. It was an attack which saw ‘The Waiters’ patriotically and valorously break the nose and smash up the face of a woman MP, Reneilwe Mashabela.
On 20 April, Judge Elizabeth Baartman, assisted by Judges Nape Dolamo and Owen Rogers, will rule on the ANC’s submission on television coverage in parliament – as argued by Jeremy Gauntlett for Parliament in the Cape High Court last Friday – that its film and broadcasting policy is totally reasonable and is necessary to protect the dignity of the legislature.
Gauntlett represented the respondents, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, National Council of Provinces chairperson Thandi Modise, secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana, and state security minister David Mahlobo.
According to Vecchiatto’s article in Business Day on 6 March, Steven Budlender, for the applicants – Sanef, the Right2Know Campaign, the Open Democracy Advice Centre, and media groups Primedia and Media24 – responded with the question: “Why would a wide angle shot impugn the dignity of Parliament?” He went on. “What we say is that this is a case which involves the public’s right for them to see for themselves what happens in Parliament, to see the way that their MPs conduct or misconduct themselves and how their Speaker or chair deals with this conduct.”
The ANC vs the media
If anyone doubts that the ANC believes itself to be at war with the media then read the opening sentence of the foreword in Richard Poplak’s book, Until Julius Comes – Adventures in the Political Jungle.
“We beat you,” said Malusi Gigaba to the media. “You campaigned hard against the African National Congress and we defeated you!”
There is nothing new in that observation – Wits University academic Dr Glenda Daniels has written an erudite book on the subject, Fight for Democracy – The African National Congress and the Media in South Africa.
The extraordinary extent to which the ANC has, quite literally, taken that fight to the media was revealed in the rambunctious SONA debate on 12 February.
Firstly there was the account by Beeld editor, Adriaan Basson, of how Cedric Gina, former Numsa president, SABC board member and ardent supporter of President Jacob Zuma, physically prevented him from taking photographs with his cellphone as the ANC-led state’s well-rehearsed goons thuggishly attacked women (and men) MPs. Thereafter he angrily tried to dictate what Basson wrote in his notebook. (What the ANC cannot do, however, is control public perception and the leitmotif of 12 February will, forever, be “He he he.”)
Then there was Andrew Donaldson’s comment in Gill Moodie’s article on the Grubstreet website of how the ANC deliberately sent in deployed cadres to take up the seats of accredited parliamentary correspondents and how, when challenged, they predictably accused the reporters of being racist.
Yesterday we had the unsavoury incident of ‘The Waiters” assaulting an accredited parliamentary correspondent, Jan Gerber, for taking photographs of police members and their vehicles, behaviour that the South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) described as “thuggish”.
“Sanef will take this matter up with General Riah Phiyega’s office as a matter of urgency. Sanef further encourages Gerber to lay a criminal charge against the police officers concerned and consider instituting civil action as a strong message to the police that they are not above the law,” it said in a statement.
I have among my acquaintances reporters who were in the House when Hendrik Verwoerd was murdered in 1966 and who reported in the subsequent eras of B J Vorster, PW Botha and F W de Klerk and none of them – not ever, not even remotely – experienced what Basson, Donaldson and the rest of the parliamentary press corps experienced on 12 February and what Jan Gerber experienced yesterday within the precincts of parliament. What happened outside parliament on 12 February when members of the Democratic Alliance who had committed no crime were assaulted, subjected to blasts from water cannons and arrested recalled the September 1989 Purple Rain protest – although the ANC, while always happy to borrow from the National Party handbook, kindly refined the process somewhat by omitting the dye.
eNCA vs SABC
Like millions of other South Africans I watched the unfolding drama of the SONA debate on television on the evening of 12 February, flicking between SABC and eNCA to compare how they were covering what was clearly a turning point in our evolving democracy.
I instantly noted that while eNCA was using a crawler – the rolling script at the bottom of the screen – to add information to the visuals and audio which was emanating from and controlled by parliament and, ultimately, the ANC, the SABC was not. Furthermore, unlike eNCA, the SABC was not using the conventional norm of a panel of experts whose commentary adds to the understanding of what the viewers are experiencing. I found this difficult to understand until I discovered later that COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng had banned their use.
“Do not cut away!”
Adding to the drama was the decision by the producer in parliament – clearly taken beforehand – not to allow the cameras in the legislature to reflect the ejection of the EFF.
eNCA’s, parliamentary reporter, Paula Chowles, posted a cellphone clip taken from the press gallery in which you hear her asking, “Why aren’t they showing the wide shot?”
SABC staff linked to the comms system of the SABC outside broadcast vehicle parked nearby heard producer Jimi Matthews, clearly in support of this censorship by omission, order: “Do not cut away! You will not cut away from the Speaker.”
Realising that the public was being denied this visual information, Chowles recorded what was happening on her smartphone and, within minutes, eNCA but not SABC viewers could see the ANC’s unleashed violence for themselves.
Ranjeni Munusamy did the same for Daily Maverick readers.
So why did the SABC’s press gallery reporters – who would not have been linked to the OB truck’s coms system – not follow suit?
Well, knowing Matthews, the SABC’s head of news, was in control of the Corporation’s outside broadcast truck and remembering the role he had played in censoring the news of Zuma being booed at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in Soweto on 10 December 2013, they must have decided that recording the tumult, as Chowles and Munusamy were doing, would be a very career-limiting move.
According to City Press however, one principled SABC reporter, braver than the rest, did try and was quickly, metaphorically speaking of course, whipped into line by Matthews.
“SABC viewers didn’t get to see all of the drama at Thursday night’s state of the nation address (Sona), because news boss Jimi Matthews instructed the TV director not to cut to pictures of opposition parties leaving the National Assembly.
“City Press has also learnt that chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng banned the use of commentators on TV and radio.
“City Press learnt that an SABC parliamentary reporter ran from the media gallery to the doors of the National Assembly with a camera operator to join teams from eNCA and ANN7 to film EFF members being evicted.
“But sources said Matthews instructed: “Do not cut away! You will not cut away from the Speaker.” (my emphasis)
Motsoeneng and Matthews, clearly well briefed by the ANC beforehand, wanted neither distracting commentary nor subversive visual material to sully the purity of what the ANC had decided that it would allow the grateful nation to see.
It has now been proved beyond any possible doubt that the ANC painstakingly plotted its assault on the EFF and on media freedom months before 12 February. First we had the presaging tweets last August by Captain Walter Prins leader of ‘The Waiters’ (Translated from Afrikaans: “PS: Don’t worry, at some stage in the near future we’ll go back into Parliament for old Julius. LOL.”). Then we had speaker Mbete openly acknowledging during her speech to the party’s North West provincial congress on 14 February that her party had spied on the EFF: “We knew everything, including what the red overalls discussed. We knew who was going to stand first and what they were going to say”.
It would be breathtakingly naïve to suggest that the ANC’s plans to physically attack the EFF and to keep the parliamentary camera focused on the Speaker during the attack were not communicated in advance to the SABC with strict instructions not to deviate from the parliamentary video feed.
The SABC’s spokesman, Kaizer Kganyago, would probably avoid answering a simple but trenchant question – does the SABC agree with the ANC that the producer in charge of the parliamentary streaming video footage was correct in keeping the camera fixed on speaker Baleka Mbete so as not to show the unfolding drama which could be heard but not seen in the background?
Given the way in which Motsoeneng and Matthews controlled the situation, thus preventing SABC viewers from seeing what “Zero Propaganda” eNCA’s “Know More” viewers were watching and the way in which it denied its viewers the ancillary input of political pundits which the eNCA audience enjoyed, the question would obviously be a rhetorical one.
I have little doubt, given the way in which it sees its role that the SABC would, in principle at least, have loved to join the ANC as amicus curiae in buttressing the current policy which allows the legislature video producer to keep the camera focused on the speaker should chaos erupt in the House. The supportive role that it played in seeking to deny South Africans video footage of the assault which saw Mashabela hospitalised proves beyond dispute or debate that it is indeed a State Broadcaster.
Charge of assault
Last Thursday, this website broke the news that an SABC staff member had laid a charge of assault against Matthews at a Cape Town police station. As former colleagues have pointed out in comments below subsequent internet articles, he is not prone to violence.
Upon inquiry, friends working at the SABC told me that Matthews, in a moment of frustration, allegedly told the woman that if she was again in dereliction of duty, as he saw it, he would “throw her off the roof”.” That hardly constitutes assault in the normal understanding of the word.
I was also told that he was seen banging his head in frustration against the glass partition in the outside broadcast truck.
Given the sort of pressures that the SABC is under from the ANC to “polish the president’s halo”, one can empathise with such a display of tension.
Checks and balances
In August 2013, apparently in answer to Andrew Donaldson who had asked “What have they done to Jimi Matthews?” Matthews told the Mail & Guardian that he was perplexed that anyone could possibly deem the SABC, on his watch, to be a propaganda tool for the ANC. This was because all the necessary “checks and balances” had been put in place to prevent this from happening.
The television viewing public is not convinced.
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