Public hearing looms over SABC censorship

Cape Town – While South Africa’s capital burns with scant coverage on the South African public broadcaster as part of its new censorship policy of banning protest visuals, the country’s broadcasting regulator has set a public hearing over the SABC’s TV news coverage.

The SABC has until Wednesday to provide the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) with reasons why it’s censoring its TV news for viewers in the run-up to the August elections.

The SABC’s highly embarrassing and inadequate coverage of public protests following the decision by its chief operating officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng to ban certain public protest visuals, came into stark effect on Monday night and on Tuesday as violence flared up in Pretoria townships that included the torching of buses, looting and road closures.

While both eNCA and ANN7 on MultiChoice’s DStv on Monday night reported the Tshwane unrest and did rolling on-location coverage on Tuesday morning, the SABC News channel only briefly mentioned the news the first time at 23:01 on Monday night. Free-to-air viewers of SABC channels on Monday night got no news about the developing story.

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On Tuesday morning, Morning Live on SABC2 had time to discuss and tell viewers about the “Strawberry Moon” phenomena but not for reporting the Mamelodi and Atteridgeville unrest. Viewers had to hear about “busses burnt” from the outsourced traffic report ironically warning viewers about road closures. 

While other news channels did multiple interviews, live-crossings and on-location reporting, SABC TV News told viewers several times that it won’t show them anything, instead framing the narrative and asking viewers to weigh in on the question: “What should the punishment be for the destruction of public infrastructure?”

‘Stop SABC Censorship’

An online petition, “Stop SABC Censorship”, started by the public broadcasting pressure group, SOS Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) to be handed to the broadcasting regulator has so far garnered over 3400 signatures and keeps growing.

The groups, including the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), also asked Icasa to investigate the SABC for allegedly breaching the Broadcasting Act, the SABC’s licence conditions, and the SABC’s own newly revised editorial policy by censoring visuals in news reporting of public protests.

“The decision has clear negative implications for media freedom and yet we have been given no indication that the decision followed due process,” said William Bird, MMA director.

“Given the gravity of the issue, we would have hoped for a clearly argued principle backed up by strong supporting evidence; instead, we have hubris and confusion”.

The SABC has until Wednesday to give Icasa a formal response after which a public hearing is planned for Friday afternoon at the broadcasting regulator.

Besides censoring TV news visuals on all SABC TV channels, the South African Broadcasting Corporation has banned the reading of newspaper headlines on all its airwaves, abruptly cancelled the long-running show The Editors on SAfm where editors comment on the news, and is also axing the similarly long-running Kommentaar (Commentary) on RSG also without reason.

The SABC told Icasa that a public hearing on the matter of its alleged censorship of the news is not urgent. 

“The SABC has acted within the limits of its licence and in accordance the Broadcasting Act as well as the Broadcasting Code. The SABC submits that the complaint is not urgent, let alone extremely urgent,” the SABC told Icasa.

Icasa disagreed with the SABC and said the matter is urgent and that its imperative that the uncertainty be removed regarding the SABC’s blackout decision of certain public protest coverage.

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