As suspended journalists reveal SABC head’s open support for the president, Icasa talks tough on the consequences of its ruling being ignored by the broadcaster
SABC’s defiant chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, told staff that President Jacob Zuma deserved special treatment from its journalists and should not be questioned in the same way as other leaders.
This is according to legal documents filed before the Constitutional Court on Friday by eight suspended SABC journalists.
Motsoeneng, however, said SABC journalists were free to question any other leader – citing ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe as an example.
Motsoeneng allegedly told staff members attending a workshop on the coverage of local government elections – held in Magaliesburg, North West, last month – that Zuma and other ANC leaders were not equal.
“I am in charge; you must adhere to my instruction. President Zuma is the president of the country. I do not regard him as ANC. You cannot treat him the same. We will give him more time.
“And you can question everyone (Mantashe et al) except our president. We need to respect him, especially you SABC,” said Motsoeneng.
Motsoeneng has disregarded an ANC instruction, as well as a ruling by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), that the public broadcaster start showing visuals of violent protests.
City Press has also obtained a letter, which the SABC sent to Icasa, stating that it would not abide by the body’s ruling until it was provided with additional information.
And this week, Motsoeneng unleashed SABC lawyers on Icasa, in what was seen a “delaying tactic” ahead of tomorrow’s deadline to comply with the authority’s ruling.
On Thursday, the public broadcaster said – in a letter to Icasa through its lawyers – that it had only received recommendations from a subcommittee instead of an order from the council, and this prevented it from launching a legal review.
“Our instructions are further that the SABC is in the process of considering its decision to review the order granted by the council of Icasa, but is unable to do so as the judgment made available to it does not, on the face of it, appear to be an order of the council of Icasa,” wrote the SABC’s attorney, Titus Mchunu of legal practice Mchunu Attorneys, in the letter.
This is the same legal practice used by the SABC board to “clear Motsoeneng of wrongdoing”, as the broadcaster claimed, following a critical finding against the chief operating officer by the Public Protector.
The SABC added that there was “no other document that constitutes an order of the council of Icasa that accompanies the judgment”.
The broadcaster further demanded proof that Icasa followed proper processes, including a copy of the minutes of the council meeting at which the recommendations were considered; the date on which the meeting took place; the date on which the order was made; and the names of the council members who were present when the order was made.
On Monday, Icasa ruled that the SABC must reverse its policy not to show the destruction of property during violent protests, saying it had seven days to comply. However, the SABC restated in its letter that it did not intend to comply with the order, but would take it for review, despite the deadline.
Icasa was adamant that there would be consequences if the public broadcaster failed to comply.
Icasa head Rubben Mohlaloga told City Press: “The ruling is there and it remains valid up until it is set aside by a court of law.
“So the seven days that lapse on Monday [tomorrow] are still there and available for the SABC to comply with the order. I am not aware of any issues that may delay compliance, except for the fact that they asked for certain information – and the request for that information has got nothing to do with whether the ruling is valid or not,” Mohlaloga said.
He said Icasa’s ruling was, for now, “still valid, regardless of what information they are requesting”, adding that Icasa’s lawyers were expected to have communicated the same message to the SABC.
Mohlaloga said the SABC had the right to ask for further information, but was quick to add that, in the event of its noncompliance by close of business on Monday, “the complaints and compliance committee will look at the noncompliance and determine what remedies are available and what remedies would be reasonable within the context of that noncompliance”.
Recommendations would be sent to council, he said.
He pointed out that “the harshness of the penalty for noncompliance will depend on what material factors will be presented before the complaints and compliance committee”.
Mohlaloga said Icasa had a council of seven, and six councillors were present on Monday, when the ruling was finalised.
Minutes of the meeting were also available, he said.
An Icasa official said the SABC was using delaying tactics, but it could not avert the pending decision, nor the fact that the tomorrow’s deadline was still in place.
“The [Monday] meeting took place and was attended by six people. One councillor is on sick leave and has been for two weeks now. It is not like there is anything sinister about her absence,” said the official.
The Constitutional Court was expected to decide on the future of SABC’s protest policy – which bars the broadcasting of footage showing public violence – as well as on the suspension of the eight SABC journalists facing a disciplinary hearing for questioning the policies of the broadcaster.
Like Motsoeneng, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi was seen to hold a view that she was accountable only to Zuma and not the governing party.
She snubbed a meeting on Monday with the ANC communications subcommittee headed by Jackson Mthembu, at which she had been expected to explain the goings-on at the broadcaster.
Those close to the subcommittee said Muthambi gave an apology that she was doing election work. However, a party leader in Limpopo said the minister was seen in Sekhukhune instead of the Waterberg district, where she was tasked with gathering ANC deployees.
Muthambi’s spokesperson was unavailable for comment.
SA Communist Party (SACP) officials said Muthambi was reminded last year, when she was deployed as a Cabinet minister, that it was Mantashe as well as Zuma who briefed her.
An SACP leader said the confrontation took place soon after the ANC’s national general council in October, when the party appeared to be losing patience with Muthambi’s mishandling of the digital migration process and her tendency to ignore ANC policy.
A communications subcommittee member said the ANC this week escalated the SABC’s problems to Parliament “to avoid unnecessary spats, because this issue almost hinges on internal factional battles”.
After the ANC national working committee meeting on Monday, Mantashe said that structures of the ANC were barred from making further statements on the SABC.
He also warned against the public broadcaster ignoring Icasa rulings.
However, Mantashe’s detractors said the move was an attempt to muzzle Motsoeneng’s backers – including the ANC youth league and the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association – and to give free rein to the SACP to attack him.
“We will not keep quiet if the SACP continues attacking Hlaudi,” said a senior party leader opposed to Mantashe.
“We will meet them at the national executive committee [NEC] meeting next month,” said the leader, adding that the SABC’s protest policy was endorsed by the ANC at the NEC meeting in May, without objections.
“But we know 2017 is coming, and that is why people are changing,” said the leader, referring to next year’s succession race, when the ANC will be electing a new national executive.
An NEC member said those supporting Motsoeneng were mistaken to think there were many of them on the committee.
He said the ANC ought to act because, in the public eye, Motsoeneng was “messing up the SABC in the name of the ANC and government”.
Last week, Mthembu told City Press the ANC had no policy in support of censorship and that, “under normal circumstances”, this view would be supported in the ANC’s highest structures.
He said the ANC had to clean up the public broadcaster ahead of the party’s national policy conference and the national elective conference next year – a sentiment repeated by two other subcommittee members.
Military veterans association chairperson Kebby Maphatsoe, a staunch Zuma ally, praised Motsoeneng’s effectiveness since taking over the SABC.
“People wanted to remove Hlaudi because they wanted tenders at the SABC,” he said, adding that former SABC group CEO Solly Mokoetle was removed for the same reasons by people within the ANC.
An ANC MP said Zuma loyalists needed Motsoeneng’s interventions for the August 3 municipal polls because “they are worried about the ANC losing some key areas”.