for the Journalists of Southern Africa
It was ironic this week that the SABC spokesman refused to comment on an email sent to SABC staff on how to refer to President Jacob Zuma’s controversial new home in Nkandla on the basis that it was an internal communication.
An opportunity for a debate on whether the memo was an instruction to use neutral language or if it was an act of censorship was missed because the spokesman, Kaizer Kganyago, was asserting that the journalistic practices of the public broadcaster are private. And yet this comes as the SABC is preparing for a new Icasa hearing next week on the long-running blacklisting saga because a High Court ruling last year reminded all that scrutiny of the journalistic practices of the public broadcaster are in the public interest.
If you can’t remember all the twists and turns of the blacklisting saga, here’s a recap:
In 2006 the Sowetan broke a story that said that the SABC was allegedly blacklisting the use of journalists and commentators such as Karima Brown and William Gumede because they were perceived to be unfriendly towards then President Thabo Mbeki.
More stories of the alleged blacklisting (on the instruction of Snuki Zikalala, the then MD of news and current affairs) of other commentators – such as Mail & Guardian publisher Trevor Ncube and Mbeki’s brother, Moeletsi – followed.
The SABC denied that there was a blanket ban on particular commentators and said it was in the process of drafting policy guidelines for the use of commentators.
Further stories followed and then John Perlman, presenter at the time of the AM Live current-affairs show on SABC station SAfm, confronted Kganyago on air and said there was a blacklist in practice at the state broadcaster. (Perlman later resigned in January 2007.)
Dail Mpofu, the then GCEO of the SABC, appointed an independent commission of inquiry to look into the matter.
In October 2006, Mpofu release a summary of the commission’s report saying that no evidence of a blacklist was found. But then the Mail & Guardian laid its hands on the full report and revealed that the commission found that there were “a number of instances in which instructions were given either not to use a particular analyst or commentator at all, or to use a particular analyst for limited purpose only”. It also found a “phenomenon of self-censorship” where staff took decisions to avoid the censure, real or perceived, of Zikalala.
No immediate action was taken against Zikalala (though he later left the SABC in early 2009) and then, in early 2007, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) laid a complaint with Icasa, claiming that the SABC violated the Broadcasting Act for, among other things, not providing fair and unbiased news and current-affairs shows and for breaking its licence conditions by limiting the diversity of opinion.In June 2009, Icasa’s Complaints and Compliance Committee (CCC) dismissed the FXI’s complaint, saying it did not have jurisdiction over what it called an
The FXI then asked the High Court to set aside the Icasa decision and in January 2011 Judge Neels Claassen ruled that Icasa’s interpretation of its jurisdiction was “fundamentally flawed” and he ordered the CCC to reconsider the matter.
“If (Icasa’s position is) correct,” the judgment said, “it would mean that the SABC may with impunity manipulate and distort the preparation of its news and current affairs coverage and publicly lie about it when they are caught out having done so”.
Since then the FXI has been ready to present its argument again to the CCC and this will finally happen next week.
Icasa told Journalism.co.za that the SABC had asked for a postponement because their senior counsel could not make the hearing next week but the regulator rejected this after such a long delay in getting this matter heard afresh.
Kganyago did not respond to requests for comment while Mbalenhle Cele, the head of the FXI’s Law Clinic, said the institute’s arguments had not changed since the matter was first heard.
Cele said she felt that the SABC had been deliberately trying to delay the process of getting the matter heard afresh by the CCC.
The question is whether it is still worth pursuing the matter after so long and considering that neither Mpofu nor Zikalala are with the state broadcaster anymore.
“We’ve asked ourselves that question as well,” Cele says. “But you know what? The nature of litigation is that it does tend to drag on. For us, what was relevant in 2008 is still relevant today. What is important is that we want to set a precedent so that nothing of this nature happens again.
“This is the public broadcaster. What they do is our concern. It is amazing that, in this day and age, you still find people not willing to engage with the public on issues relating to the public broadcaster.”
‘SABC pushes soaps at expense of diversity’, Journalism.co.za, September 2012
‘I watched SABC News last night…’, The Harbinger, August 2012
‘Broadcasting: Stale news is bad news’, Mail & Guardian, July 2012
‘eNews rating increase due to consumer focus and national mood’, Journalism.co.za, June 2012
‘SOS co-ordinator can’t afford to be bored by SABC crisis,’ Journalsim.co.za, July 2011