OPINION: Most people know about the SABC’s censorship of the booing of President Jacob Zuma at the Mandela commemoration in December 2013, but do they know about the similar de facto censorship of DA (then-parliamentary) leader Mmusi Maimane’s ‘Broken Man’ speech, also directed at Zuma? Robert Abel recounts his story of his interactions with the BCCSA over the SABC’s treatment of the debate.
It was completely omitted from (the only English) free-to-air SABC News bulletin on the day together with all SONA Debate coverage of which it was the leading speech – despite much more than ample time to prepare.
Remarkably, in the introduction to this bulletin we were, as expected, told that the main story would be the SONA debate but the insert started with soundless visuals of Maimane and other opposition party leaders and that was the sum total of coverage on the SONA debate in that bulletin on the main news story of the day.
The edited clip they showed on the free-to-air 7pm Afrikaans bulletin on SABC 2 immediately following, presumably replicated across all its free-to-air bulletins, in fact precisely cut out all specific “You are a broken man…” content completely.
The ‘Broken Man’ real time feed of the 20-minute speech, which started at 2.30pm was available to the SABC and any competent video editor, would have been able to prepare it for insertion into a bulletin in no more than 30 minutes after its completion so my assumption was that it had been deliberately censored.
Further, I discovered that there was every reason to believe that the initial newsroom edit included the missing material, so it must be inferred to have been pulled by higher management. Since the newsworthy aspect of the speech was a scathing attack on Zuma, which any impartial broadcaster would have covered with relish, the independence of the SABC is brought into question.
The following day I filed a complaint, confined to the 6.30pm SABC News bulletin of 17 February, about this unexplained omission with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA (BCCSA), using Maimane’s ‘Broken Man’ speech for the purposes of the complaint, since it was so powerful and so newsworthy that it became instantly famous and was even covered internationally; it is even safe to say that this is all that most news viewers – but not those who only watch the SABC – will remember about the 2015 SONA debate.
The complaint was found to have sufficient merit to go to a BCCSA Tribunal Hearing, but it found in favour of the SABC, on grounds that appear eminently challengeable. [A shortened excerpt of the ruling is placed below this story, along with a link to the full judgment – Ed.]
The second aspect of this case, partially successful, was a challenge to the BCCSA’s obstructionist collaboration with the SABC’s refusal to make the material upon which complaints are based available for the purposes of the complaint without paying, claiming copyright even after being confronted with the Copyright Act’s express exemption for such purposes.
They ruled that such material could henceforth be viewed for free but only in the BCCSA’s registrar’s office, which is in Johannesburg. They gave no reasons for this highly restrictive condition the effect of which is to obstruct and deter most of the country from the BCCSA process. Why, for instance, could I living in Cape Town, not view the material at the SABC in Sea Point? What about potential complainants in deeply rural areas?
They give no reasons and this points to the deep problems arising out of the BCCSA overall de facto its structure, administration, Code, Procedural Rules, appeal fees, and actual judgements obstruct accountability.
I believe no formal court could uphold the above cited restriction: for instance, Chapter 10, Section 195 of the Constitution, g) Transparency must be fostered by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information read together with the specific sections of the Copyright Act seems indefeasible; and this would open the door equally to the logical solution, which would facilitate the most rigorous scrutiny and at the same time cancel geographic discrimination, that of providing copies or downloads – whether or not the broadcaster likes it.
I am thus investigating direct recourse to the formal court system, which actually takes seriously considerations of provisions of the Constitution and even, e.g., the Copyright Act.
This would take the fight to them and conceivably result in deep reforms and real accountability by broadcasters. It would, however, take a long time.
In the meantime we urge the public, particularly in the Johannesburg area, to vigilantly monitor broadcasts, particularly free-to-air – being the main source of news for most of the electorate – and bombard the BCCSA with complaints.
[THE BCCSA RULING: Following a complaint that the 18h30 SABC3 TV English news bulletin did not include excerpts of that day’s reply by the leader of the Parliamentary Opposition in regard to the State of the Nation address of the President, the Tribunal held as follows: 1. The SABC decides on the contents of its own news bulletins. That accords with the Broadcasting Act 1999, which guarantees editorial independence to the SABC. It is not the task of the BCCSA to interfere at that level. If, however, the Broadcasting Code has been breached by a particular broadcast, this does concern the BCCSA. 2. Although it would have been preferable for SABC3 to have included the excerpts during the 18:30 English news on that day, they were indeed part of the 06:00 English SABC3 news bulletin the next morning. 3. While not strictly relevant, it is a fact that the excerpts were also included in the 19:00 Afrikaans SABC2 news bulletin, as well as in the news on subscription Channel 404 on DSTV directly after the 18:30 English bulletin, the latter being the case which was before the BCCSA. This was indicative of the bona fides of the SABC. 4. Although an error had been made by stating that the News would get back to the story of the reaction to the Sate of the Nation Address and it was argued that this was a material omission, there were insufficient grounds in terms of the Broadcasting Code for the BCCSA to make a finding against the SABC as a result of this error. The Complaint was, accordingly, not upheld. 5. A Complaint that the Afrikaans News on SABC2 should have aired the excerpts earlier in the 19:00 bulletin was also not upheld. That was an editorial decision which did not justify a finding against the SABC. 6. Also held: that a complainant is entitled to view a copy of a broadcast in the Office of the Registrar. This is permissible in terms of the Copyright Act. The legal question raised by the Complainant, accordingly, partly decided in the Complainant’s favour. Abel vs SABC3. Full BCCSA Abel Judgment.]
Robert Abel is an ordinary citizen formerly active in documentary making.
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