SABC protest-censorship: thought control dressed up in the guise of respectability

On Friday, 24 June 2016, protestors took to the streets to demand ICASA’s Complaints and Compliance Committee (CCC) to rule against the SABC and Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s blanket ban of visuals of community protests involving the destruction of public property. Although the ban spoke specifically to visuals of the destruction of public property (as though private property was fair game in Motsoeneng’s steely red eyes), so expansive was its real intention that three journalists were suspended after challenging an instruction to not cover an anti-censorship solidarity protest outside the SABC’s Cape Town bureau by our partners, Right2Know, while we were sitting in on the CCC hearing in Johannesburg.

Our comrades protesting outside ICASA’s Sandton offices came from a wide range of organisations including the Marikana Support Committee, Freedom of Expression Network, as well as members of  the South African Screen Federation. The SOS Coalition’s partner, amandla.mobi, also handed over a 5000 signatories strong petition representing the voices of ordinary citizens across the country to the Coordinator of the CCC, demanding a ruling against the public broadcaster’s self-censorship of community protest and civil unrest. They expressed in no uncertain terms how outlandish and anti-democratic the #HlaudiBan was, and the very real impact it had. Chief amongst their concerns was the suppression, for some, of their decades-long struggle  against, and dissatisfaction with the governing party’s failure to represent and advance their rights to improved services at local government and, especially, the acceleration of the inclusion of their informal settlements into municipal integrated development plans instead of being criminalised, beaten and brutalised by State security forces.

The CCC heard the complaint submitted by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), the Save Our SABC Coalition (SOS) and the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) at the independent regulator’s auditorium in Sandton. In our papers, we contended that in addition to being unlawful and in contravention of its license conditions, the blanket ban would deny the people of South Africa the right to know about the nature and extent of community residents’ dissatisfaction with their local government councillors and authorities. This, we demonstrated, was sharply put into focus with the public broadcaster’s failure to provide full, independent and contextualised coverage of the recent and violent protests in various communities in Tshwane, in line with its statutory mandate and editorial policies.

It is truly disgraceful that the SABC would defend such an indefensible policy position such as this, which is reminiscent of the suppression of information under the apartheid era. Further, it is yet another egregious waste of public funds that could be directed towards developing robust public service interest programming such as local early childhood development programmes and documentary films which have suffered the most under Motsoeneng’s demagoguery in the SABC. Most distressingly of all, however, is that in the lead-up to the local government elections, in August, seven out of the 12 million TV-owning households who rely exclusively on SABC for their news and information needs are being actively misinformed through Motsoeneng’s sunshine journalism campaign. Having already witness intra-political murders over councillor lists and communities like Atteridgeville being set alight because of the imposition of local council and mayoral candidates, we are undergoing a deliberate thought control campaign that is being dressed up in the robes of respectability around protest.

MMA director, William Bird, remarked that he was “flabbergasted by the level of unsubstantiated arguments presented by the SABC’s legal team which undermined the intelligence of the people of South Africa. Even before the embarrassing showing by the broadcaster’s lawyers, we offered Mr Motsoeneng the opportunity to do the right thing and protect his and the SABC’s dignity by withdrawing the blanket ban on vital information for citizens in order to make informed decisions when they vote for their local government representatives in August, this year.”

My own thoughts on the matter is that Bird is all too polite. It was, frankly, embarrassing to watch a whole senior advocate clumsily argue how the SABC had a duty to protect young viewers from violent images because of epidemic proportions of bad parenting in South Africa. The self-same SABC that routinely broadcasts local and international films riddled with scenes of gratuitous violence. And when asked what empirical evidence the SABC relied on to support this assertion, this self same whole senior advocate made an incoherent excuse about the urgency of the hearing denying his team the opportunity to undertake those studies, before vacating the chamber prematurely – ostentatious ostrich leather briefcase in tow. Now, while we know Mr Motsoeneng is a self-professed man of little regard for scientific research or reading, for that matter, it’s more than infuriating watching the deliberate decay and looting of this vital yet embattled public institution by such incompetence as was demonstrated by his legal team.

Sheniece Linderboom, head of the FXI’s legal clinic described the proceedings as “a clear indication of the SABC’s commitment to limiting freedom of information which is a vital and complementary right to freedom of expression. Even though we condemn public violence and destruction of property during protest,” she added, “the blanket ban is effectively being used to deny South Africans their information rights, which is equally condemnable.”

At the heart of the problem is Motsoeneng’s epically anti-democratic values and contempt for universally understood and legislated public service broadcasting and media freedom principles. His reign of terror in the SABC, which has been rubber-stamped by a delinquent (and STILL inquorate) Board, and protected by a bungling Minister of Communications because “Baba loves him,” has resulted in the:

  • suspension of a number of journalists intent on living up to their mandate of providing factual, balanced and undistorted news and current affairs programming;
  • suspension of the CEO, Franz Matlala, not even four months into his five-year contract; and now
  • resignation of Acting CEO and SABC Head of News and Current Affairs for his self-professed complicity in the “corrosive atmosphere” in our national public broadcaster.

Ten years after the downward spiral of the SABC which started with the blacklisting saga and extended to its financial meltdown, we find ourselves full circle, gazing into the abyss of Motsoeneng’s sunshine news and rainbow journalism, while townships burn over the imposition of their councillors and mayoral candidates from above. For what it’s worth, its good to see Jimi Matthews take the ethical high-road and resign, admitting his own well-intentioned complicity in allowing the Hlaudification decay to prevail. I certainly hope that, as he does his penitence for the role he played in the decline of the SABC’s credibility, he allies with those of us who have long said that if it rots from the head, then it must be cut off.

A ruling on the matter is expected in the coming weeks, in line with the matter being heard on an urgent basis, and a recommendation will be made to the ICASA Council on the course of action to be followed. What we can be certain of until that ruling and recommendation is handed down, however, is that SABC News, like a Jo’burg winter, will continue to be Hlaudi with a 70% chance of sunshine.

An edited version of this piece was first published by IOL on 28 June 2016.

 

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