SABC bosses ‘censored’ Sona coverage

2015-02-15 17:00

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SABC viewers didn’t get to see all of the drama at Thursday night’s state of the nation address (Sona), because news boss Jimi Matthews instructed the TV director not to cut to pictures of opposition parties leaving the National Assembly.

City Press has also learnt that chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng banned the use of commentators on TV and radio.

Meanwhile, more drama is being piled on to an already dramatic Sona broadcast with news that four of six eNCA satellite signals were jammed. This comes after cellphone signal was jammed inside Parliament, forcing journalists and opposition MPs to protest. The signal was eventually restored.

Yesterday, the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) said it planned to approach the courts to prevent any future attempts by state security agencies from unlawfully blocking communication signals aimed at interfering with journalists’ constitutionally protected rights and freedoms. It called the act of jamming a “grave concern”.

Sanef said it would want to meet with President Jacob Zuma and Speaker Baleka Mbete about the illegal clampdown on freedom of expression.

It further said it would ask the courts to compel Parliament to allow broadcast media to install their own cameras in the House. “We think it a winnable case because the constitutional principles are very clear,” said Sanef chairperson Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

The coverage of Sona by SABC2 and other broadcasters differed vastly, even though all media channels relied on the same feed and all had their own cameras outside.

The Parliament TV feed did not show the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) being forcibly removed, but instead kept cameras trained on Speaker Baleka Mbete and national council of provinces chair Thandi Modise. The walk-out by the DA was also not shown, despite Parliament having plenty of cameras available.

It was only when journalists uploaded cellphone footage that broadcasters such as eNCA could show what had happened.

Hannes du Buisson, president of the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union, on Friday said: “It has been reported by members who overheard conversations on comms and in the control room that a senior news boss instructed the director not to cut away from the feed.”

Several sources working on the Sona broadcast said the instructions came from Matthews, SABC’s group executive of news and current affairs, who called the shots from the SABC’s outside broadcast unit.

City Press learnt that an SABC parliamentary reporter ran from the media gallery to the doors of the National Assembly with a camera operator to join teams from eNCA and ANN7 to film EFF members being evicted.

But sources said Matthews instructed: “Do not cut away! You will not cut away from the Speaker.”

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago confirmed this: “Yes, the head of news instructed that we keep on the president, as we were there to capture [his] speech.”

He dismissed claims about the journalist: “The cameras you are referring to are positioned at that same position every year to capture the parliamentarians when they leave Parliament. It is rather naive to think that they were there to capture the exit of the EFF. It must be noted that this does not suggest that we did not cover the EFF when they left Parliament. We covered them when they were marching out towards Marks Building.”

Faced with the same lack of shot options from Parliament TV, eNCA’s executive producer, Mapi Mhlangu, said: “Our reporter Paula Chowles was in the assembly. We issued an instruction. We said: ‘You have an iPhone. Use it.’ She shot the EFF removal and uploaded it to YouTube, emailed us the link and we were able to download it and broadcast it within 10 minutes.”

SABC2’s coverage was plagued by technical problems, despite an upgrade in December that introduced state of the art recording systems to Parliament TV. SABC showed the red carpet and used presenters to host their Sona coverage, but featured no political analysts. Several SABC insiders said this instruction came from Motsoeneng. The decision was questioned by members of the SABC’s news team, but their managers repeatedly overruled them.

Kganyago said: “It was our plan not to use commentators, as we have senior journalists who we felt were capable enough to do the work at hand.”

William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, said: “You would expect?...?the national broadcaster would have had the best commentators in the country to unpack the president’s address?...?It seems like an extraordinary decision to leave it to the presenters?…?one of whom repeated the president’s joke in the end, saying the opposition were missing out by not hearing the speech.”

Meanwhile, eNCA told City Press four of their six satellite lines from Parliament “were jammed by an unknown rogue operator” on Thursday night – not for the first time.

eNCA managing director Patrick Conroy said: “We have been affected during high-profile news events since April last year, including the elections and the Oscar Pistorius trial. Because nonpolitical events have also been targeted, we do not believe there is a political motive for this.”

At The New Age newspaper business breakfast on Friday morning, Motsoeneng reiterated the SABC’s editorial policy to promote “70% good [news]” stories.

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