Ed Herbst: Censorship roots. SABC’s ‘Eureka Moment’ – the Arms Deal

Media censorship is not a foreign concept in the developing world, one only has to look at China as an example. But South Africa was on a different path. Following the regime change in the early 90’s, there was an air of optimism, as democracy and free speech took centre stage. But as Ed Herbst suggests, the tide did turn. The recent censorship of violent protests by the state broadcaster has again opened Pandora’s Box.

One has to wonder if the leadership of South Africa will ever learn? Violent protests now includes opposition parties election adverts, and who knows what’s next. And while the privileged few have asked ‘who watches the SABC, we’re all on satellite or steaming’, the latest numbers may change that perception.

A quick look at viewership demographics show SABC 1 has average weekly viewership of 22 million, SABC 2 18.8 million and SABC 3 14.9 million. Those are staggering numbers in a population of just under 53 million, and one can see where the majority vote comes from. Herbst, a retired journalist, winds back the clock and suggests the censorship roots go back to 2003 and the arms deal. Another fascinating read. – Stuart Lowman

By Ed Herbst*

“Let us look then at the many and various such statements Motsoeneng has made over time and, through them, develop a more complete picture of “the news” as it is understood by the SABC. Also, to place Motsoeneng’s most recent instruction in its proper context.” Gareth van Onselen How Motsoeneng has subverted the news Business Day 30/5/2016.

Gareth van Onselen has provided a useful timeline on what amounts to censorship by omission at the state broadcaster during the Hlaudi Motsoeneng era.

I would argue that this process has much older antecedents and can be traced back to the early manifestations of Arms Deal corruption and what I call the SABC’s “Eureka Moment”.

This matter first came to light in March 2003 when former SABC broadcaster, Pat Rogers, complained to the SABC and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission that the Corporation was censoring by omission a story that was then dominating the headlines in other media including E-TV – that the Scorpions were investigating Jacob Zuma on the grounds that he was implicated in the Arms Deal scandal.


The crux of the matter was crisply summed up by the chairperson of the BCCSA, Kobus van Rooyen. “The Mail & Guardian broke the news in November (2002) and the SABC only broke the story in December.

Bribery allegations

“A complaint against the SABC for failing to report bribery allegations against Deputy President Jacob Zuma in November (2002) was a first of its kind for the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

“Pat Rogers, a programme and product manager for Veritas, a catholic community radio station in Johannesburg, complained to the Commission early this year (2003) that the SABC had ignored the Scorpion’s investigation of Zuma allegedly soliciting a bribe of R500 000 a year from the French defence company, Thiessens CSF.”

“Rogers said the Commission first rejected his complaint. ‘They told me that the complaint didn’t fall under their jurisdiction. They later agreed that the complaint was something they needed to look at.’

“He said the SABC told the hearing it had it had covered the story on its website, but did not report the matter on TV because reporters could not get hold of Zuma for comment. ‘But a story appearing on the website quoted Zuma,’ Rogers said.”

The entirely truthful and accurate response of the BCCSA to Rogers’ submission was that the current legislation only allows it to adjudicate on news items that have been broadcast and not what, in this case, had deliberately been censored by omission.

The BCCSA released a statement that said: “A general duty to broadcast matters of public importance does not exist in terms of the Broadcasting Code. A broadcaster must decide for itself whether an event is newsworthy.”

The fact that censorship by omission contravenes article 16 of the Bill of Rights and denies South African citizens their constitutional right of access to information which affects them was a matter of no importance or significance to those that then and now controlled the “transformed” SABC.

Eureka moment

This was the Eureka Moment that the ANC-controlled SABC had been waiting for – the astounding and cathartically-welcome revelation that there could be no sanction if they simply refused to cover any news story that embarrassed the party or, more specifically, the ruling faction within the party.

The rot started then because censorship by omission has been the SABC’s stock-in-trade ever since – as the latest 99.9% good news move by Motsoeneng proves.

In a letter to the Cape Times on 26/8/05, Mr Rogers wrote: “The grounds they (BCCSA) gave were that they could only deal with what had been broadcast, not what had not been broadcast; that there was no empowered body in South Africa to deal with censorship; that the SABC had more weighty considerations to deal with than a local newspaper and that there was an important ANC party meeting coming up.”

Former CEO, Peter Matlare, through the notorious Judy Nwokedi memo, then sought  to further suppress discussion of Zuma ’s involvement in the Arms Deal scandal on all SABC programmes saying that any such discussion could only take place with the approval of Pippa Green and Jimi Matthews, who were then in control of radio and television news respectively. He justified this by saying that this was part of the SABC’s “upward referral” policy.

There is no indication that Green or Matthews ever expressed concern about the fact that one of the most widely-used mediums of communication in South Africa – phone-in talk show radio programmes – were being suppressed for party political reasons on a subject that has been the subject of several books, dominated headlines for  more than a decade and still does.

Incidentally, Nwokedi apparently felt that her name had been unfairly tarnished because she had, it seems, merely been the messenger carrying out an order and she resigned shortly afterwards.

Matlare, with the apparent approval of Green and Matthews, then withdrew the live parliamentary broadcasts from the country’s most listened-to radio station, Ukhozi FM, which has almost seven million listeners “to prevent abuse of the airwaves and centralize editorial control of political content under the heads of radio and television news respectively”.

Mail & Guardian bombshell

The real reason, of course, was that politicians like Patricia de Lille of the Independent Democrats and Blessed Gwala of the IFP were going to raise the Mail & Guardian bombshell in parliament and Luthuli House did not want the voters in Jacob Zuma’s heartland to hear about it or to discuss it.

The Media Institute of South Africa (MISA) expressed widely-held concerns  the censoring of the parliamentary broadcasts in its weekly media brief (Vol 1 # 9) published on 5 September 2003 but Green and Matthews not only remained silent then but subsequently defended Matlare in newspaper letters and articles.

Green later left the SABC to write a book about Trevor Manuel for whom she had previously worked but Jimi Matthews is still the head of news, remains silent about the latest censorship and in 2013 told the Mail & Guardian’s Glynnis Underhill that ‘all the checks and balances’ were in place to prevent the SABC from becoming an ANC propaganda tool.

Since the 2003 Eureka Moment, the SABC has unconstitutionally, illegally and  unethically used censorship by omission to routinely silence opponents of the ruling faction and to keep the nation ignorant of happenings that adversely impact on the image of that faction – think of the SABC’s three-day silence after the Sunday Times front page lead on the story of Jacob Zuma ’s child by Sonono Khosa on 31 January 2010.

(There was nothing new in this and the ANC is always happy to ape the NP – PW Botha issued a decree after Judge Anton Mostert blew the Info Scandal wide open on 2 November 1978 that any reporting on this press conference would contravene security legislation and, while all other media ignored this, it took the SABC three days to pluck up the courage to defy the Botha embargo.)

Confirmed schizophrenic

Furthermore, think of the censorship of Jacob Zuma being booed at the FNB Stadium on 10 December 2013. eNCA covered this news truthfully but the state broadcaster censored the booing.

It also did not, and with deliberate intent, interview the deployed cadre of a deployed cadre, Thamsanqa Jantjie the confirmed schizophrenic who, without security clearance, was able to view angels from a vantage point just aft of Barack Obama’s left shoulder.

The censorship by omission of the booing of Jacob Zuma at the Nelson Mandela memorial service at the FNB Stadium in Soweto on 13 December 2013 was an abuse of media influence on an industrial scale and it did incalculable damage to South African’s reputation as a country which values and promotes media freedom and the freedom of expression.

Every major reporter from every major country in the world was in South Africa for the world’s final farewell to an icon.

Each and every one of them was desperate for a new angle and when City Press broke posted an online story of this censorship by the state broadcaster, this news was, within hours, communicated to more than a billion people throughout the world.

In the case of National Media Ltd v Bogoshi the Supreme Court of Appeal held that:

‘We must not forget that it is the right, and indeed a vital function, of the press to make available to the community information and criticism about every aspect of public, political, social and economic activity and thus to contribute to the formation of public opinion ….

The press and the rest of the media provide the means by which useful, and sometimes vital, information about the daily affairs of the nation is conveyed to its citizens…’

“In Khumalo and Others v Holomisa the Constitutional Court made the following statement:

‘The print, broadcast and electronic media have a particular role in the protection of freedom of expression in our society. Every citizen has the right to freedom of the press and the media and the right to receive information and ideas.

The media are key agents in ensuring that these aspects of the rights to freedom of information are respected. The ability of each citizen to be a responsible and effective member of our society depends upon the manner in which the media carry out our constitutional mandate…

Legal challenge

It would seem, then, that the decision by Motsoeneng to ban all political discussion on phone-in radio talks shows in the run up to the 3 August municipal election and last week’s decision to end protest coverage could well be unconstitutional and thus open to legal challenge.

There is an election coming up so, unsurprisingly, Motsoeneng’s latest power grab has been praised by Luthuli House.

The ruling faction of the ruling party is not bothered at all about the fact that eNCA has double the news audience of the SABC’s flagship evening TV news bulletin without costing taxpayers a cent or that the SABC’s own censored research shows that South Africans overwhelmingly believe that these bulletins are politically tainted.

Given the fact that no preventative maintenance has been done at the state broadcaster for more than two decades and that it faces a R2 billion rand bill as a consequence you would think there were more important matters to worry about but there is, of course a less than subtle irony in all of this …

“If the SABC is to play a constructive role ahead of our country’s first experience with democracy, informing the electorate rather than attempting to persuade them to vote for a particular political party, it is necessary to replace those who currently control the SABC with others who are committed to democracy and to an electorate empowered by accurate and impartial information.”

That was what Cyril Ramaphosa said in 1992, two years before the ANC succeeded the National Party and took control of the country – and the SABC.

Ed Herbst worked as a television news reporter at the SABC for 28 years – from 1977 until 2005 –  when, because of pervasive news and general corruption and unacknowledged abuse of staff, he asked for early retirement without other employment in prospect.

• Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.

* For more in-depth business news, visit biznews.com or simply sign up for the daily newsletter.

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