The State Security Agency’s job was not to sort out “internal squabbles” at the SABC, but to take care of South Africa’s national security interests.
That’s the word from Democratic Alliance shadow communications minister, Phumzile van Damme, who was responding to a Sunday Times report that the public broadcaster’s board had at a meeting on 9 October discussed asking the SSA to help it “manage leaks” and find those responsible for leaking information to the public and the media.
“Should the SABC see it fit to investigate leaks it should use internal mechanisms not the SSA,” Van Damme said in a statement, adding that she would “submit parliamentary questions to request the minutes of a SABC board meeting in which discussions reportedly took place to spy on the broadcaster’s staff to curb the prevalence of ‘leaking'”.
She said she would also request a full account of when and how the SABC worked with the SSA.
The SABC moved swiftly on Sunday to counter the Sunday Times story, ‘SABC to get spooks to spy on its staff’, saying it was “totally false” that the it had taken a decision to spy on staff members, and that the newspaper had “misled” the public.
Acting SABC spokesperson, Mmoni Seapolelo, said in a statement that the public broadcaster had engaged with the SSA on a number of issues affecting the SABC, and “one of them was to deal with the disclosure of confidential company information to third parties and the media”.
Seapolelo said the fact that the Sunday Times was in possession of confidential Board minutes and quoted its contents was “indicative that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Whether the SABC engages with the SSA or private security experts, it remains entitled to investigate breaches of confidentiality and to protection its information”, she said.
Van Damme said this was a “serious matter” which smacked of the (Hlaudi) Motsoeneng era at the SABC in which staff suffered under a climate of fear and intimidation. “The SABC simply cannot afford to revert back to that awful period in its history, where then too, the SSA was used to spy on staff to ‘curb leaks’,” said Van Damme.
Seapolelo reiterated that the SABC board had taken a decision in the past that “no journalist should be subject to SSA processes of any kind in order to protect the constitutional rights of the media”.
It was this that got the nod from the South African National Editors Forum which said it welcomed the public broadcaster’s reassurance that its reporters would not be spied on. Nevertheless, SANEF said it was “uncomfortable” with the SSA playing a role at the SABC as it was “used as a weapon in factional political battles”.
SANEF said the memory of the intimidation of SABC editors was “still fresh on our minds as the state intelligence ‘swept’ their offices recently in the name of protecting the SABC as ‘a national key point’,” it said. “As SANEF, we are well aware of the chilling effect of security agents probing journalists working at a public broadcaster. There is too much scope for abuse. The threats to freedom of expression are apparent.”
The SABC said it would always act within the ambit of the law when it came to protecting the public broadcaster, but that it was duty bound to protect confidential information, just as any other company in South Africa would.
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