Was it not soooo long ago that SABC admitted its decision of blacklisting certain persons perceived to hold a certain view was wrong? To be exact early last month SABC admitted its former head of news, Snuki Zikalala, broke its own broadcasting standards by blacklisting journalists and commentators in 2006.
This after Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) lodged a complained in 2007 following allegations that Zikalala instructed his staff not to use certain journalists or political commentators who were seen as opposed former President Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. The blacklisting saga resulted in the public broadcaster losing one of its best, John Perlman and Nikiwe Bikitsha, with the former having been instructed not to interview some of SA’s political analysts, including Karima Brown.
Perlman told Independent Newspapers at the time that: “I do think the challenges faced by the SABC go beyond the personalities who have been highlighted in the debate and I think that people need to start asking deeper questions about what’s happening to the SABC, I really do.” He said SABC’s critics “should be asking questions about the role of the board in setting parameters for editorial decision-making.” “They should be asking questions about the SABC’s involvement in the training and skilling of journalists and think they should be asking questions about the role of news on the one hand and the role of debate on the other”.
I am not bitter, said Perlman, adding he left the broadcaster with “an incredible sense of much how much sheer pleasure I’ve got out of being in conversation with people all over the country.” Perlman said his departure at the time was linked to “some broader issues about what the public broadcaster should be doing to build and deepen our democracy, and that is a positive thing if people are going to debate what kind of public broadcaster they really want.” According Perlman Radio is the “most important media institution in the country – and I say that with no disrespect to newspapers about the role they play – but it reaches more people than anybody else, especially SABC radio.” He admitted that SABC was faced with “incredibly important issues”, which include who has access to it and, most particularly, how debate is regarded. “So if the publicity around my departure contributes to that larger debate, I’m very glad about that,” Perlman told Independent Newspapers in March 2007 following his resignation from SABC.
In a statement released by both SABC and FXI following their settlement agreement, it was agreed that alleged actions of Zikalala and other staff involved were not in line with the broadcaster’s code of conduct or editorial policies. SABC also admitted their action contravened section 6 of the Broadcasting Act 4 of 1999 which states it should offer “a plurality of views and a variety of news, information and analysis from a South African point of view”. According to the settlement the broadcaster adopted guidelines on the use of commentators, experts and analysts in its news, including a commitment to “monitoring and enforcing compliance” with its editorial policies. The joint statement further committed SABC to being a public broadcaster that “will actively ensure the availability of social and political views on its airways” which, according to section 6 of the act, includes “a high standard of accuracy, fairness and impartiality in news and programmes that deal with matters of public interest”. This is however a commitment SABC has failed to adhere to and uphold to date. This saga is soooo funny and strange that it took SABC about full six years to sort out it out. But less than a month after the issue was resolved a similar incident happened.
Last night, 4 Dec, SABC’s Metro FM’s Sakina Kamwendo (@SakinaKamwendo) was apparently instructed to can an interview she had arranged with a couple of SA’s political journalists. The journos were Sam Mkokeli (@msmkokeli), from Business Day, Andrew England (@cornishft) from Financial Mail and S’thembiso Msomi (@sthezozo) from Sunday Times. Mkokeli alleged in his tweet last night that Kamwendo was “instructed to can” the scheduled interview after a “higher power” gave orders to. The interview was meant to discuss the media’s role specifically in the run up to the ruling ANC’s December conference due to start in a few weeks from now.
At the time of writing SABC spokesperson Kaiser Kganyago had not commented on the sage, telling 702’s @Eusebius last night (and Business Day this morning) that he was not aware of the incident and therefore could not make any official comment. Msomi later tweeted that night that: “Someone at SABC has just decided that myself, @msmkokeli and @cornishft are not supposed to be on Metro to discuss Mangaung and media.” He said no explanation was given for the canning of the interview, adding “We were outside the studio when the instruction came that we can’t be on radio.”
Given claims back in 2006 – almost a year away from ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference where Zuma was elected to replace Mbeki as its and later the country’s president after the latter was recalled – that Zikalala was allegedly aligned to the ‘Mbeki camp’ hence his instruction that no-one critical of the former president should be invited into the public broadcaster for offer their analysis – the same claims are now doing the rounds that it is President Jacob Zuma’s supporters (if not the ANC deployees at SABC) from the Luthuli House, the ruling party headquarters in Johannesburg, who had canned the Metro FM interview which was meant to discuss the media and its role in the run up to Mangaung.
This, many have suggested on Facebook and Twitter, is because Zuma’s supporters (just as Zikalala was seen as Mbeki’s at the time) are afraid that he would receive an unfair and unbalanced criticism from the said journos-now-turned-analysts (from other media houses). If this is anything to go by, it therefore raises a lot of questions about SABC’s alleged editorial independence (from the ruling party) for it is often perceived as pro-Zuma/pro-ANC. This is further perpetuated by a recent development whereby the broadcaster banned the use of the word “compound” in its news bulletin when referring to Zuma’s controversial Nkandla private residence.
As if that is not enough, I am sure you would remember that a couple of months ago there were complains, again, from ANC alliance partners that expelled ANCYL President Julius Malema was apparently receiving more airtime in which he criticised the ruling party, specifically Zuma. This was seen as SABC endorsing Malema to criticise and diss the Zuma administration. Moreover, this perceived censorship follows last week’s apparent last minute decision by the public broadcaster’s acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng not to broadcast a television ad from a fast food outlet depicting President Zuma and his family (see also here). Now all these issues seem to perpetuate the already existing perception that the ruling party does call the shots at what happens at the SABC. Or as other have put it: there’s directly hotline from SABC to Luthuli House, ANC headquarters.
It is also worth mentioning (thanks to City Press assistant editor @AdriaanBasson) that in September this year suspended (or is it expelled) ACNYL spokesperson Floyd Shivambu said Kamwendo was instructed to cancel an interview she had arranged with him and Malema. Shivambu, according to City Press Online, accussed SABC of being “reduced into a Zuma broadcasting corporation, only focusing on what (President) Jacob Zuma does and says”. While there are some who hold these views mentioned above – others suggest SABC’s might just be self-censorship. As Sipho Hlongwane (@comradesipho) eloquently put it on Twitter: “the ban order very probably didn’t come from Luthuli House” as been suggested, adding this is “self-censoring sycophants”. Even Msomi concurred with him on Facebook last night, saying their banning “would [be] blamed on politicians when probably it was the work of overzealous self-censorship SABC management”.
Government international relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela (@ClaysonMonyela) also raised his concern on Twitter at the time that the banning/blacklisting of the three journos (or anyone for that matter) was the “saddest” part. Monyela accused SABC editors (disclosure: Monyela’s former SABC reporter) of taking “‘wrong’ editorial decisions that they assume would please the ‘”ANC Leadership'”. He said “they [SABC editors] try too hard” to impress ANC politicians, asking: What could these guys [the 3 journos] possibly say that will affect Mangaung?
If all these rumours are true – that SABC was instructed by someone from the ANC’s Luthuli House possibly because of the viewed they were afraid would be expressed by the three journos-turned-analysts – or that what happened last night was self-censorship – then we really need to get worried and scared for the now endangered freedom of expression and opinion and the media. At the same time same fear that that Kamwendo would be sacked but let’s hope this happens not.
Whatever the cause of last night’s banning – SABC needs to get its act together and very soon. One would have thought a 2006 blacklisting of certain views would have been fixed by its joint statement with FXI last month, but what seems to be happening is just a repeat of that episode. A sad and disappointing one nogal.