Blurring the lines between party, state and public broadcaster

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the 25th Anniversary of the Afrexim Bank in Abuja, Nigeria. (Kopano Tlape, GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the 25th Anniversary of the Afrexim Bank in Abuja, Nigeria. (Kopano Tlape, GCIS)

Phumzile van Damme

It was evening. Regular programming had been interrupted because the president of the country was to address the nation on the public broadcaster. Only to find that the address was being delivered in his capacity as leader of the ruling party and he was not speaking about government policy or executive decisions – his address was about decisions agreed to at a meeting of his ruling party, decisions that will fundamentally change the fabric of the state.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's address to the nation on Tuesday evening in his capacity as leader of the ANC to speak about the outcomes of the ANC's lekgotla goes against the SABC's current editorial policy. The flags behind him, over his right shoulder, was green, black and gold, with the ANC insignia proudly on display. He wore a party-branded golf shirt, and an ANC pin on the lapel of his blazer.

It was patently clear his address was that of a leader of a political party, and not the president of South Africa. The SABC had done this so many times before, violating its own editorial policies to allow former president Jacob Zuma to address the nation in his capacity as leader of the ANC.

In its current editorial policy, the SABC gives full, or extended, live television and/or radio coverage of events of national importance. Events of national importance include the opening of Parliament, the budget speech, State occasions such as visits by foreign dignitaries and State funerals; major commemorative occasions, and the proceedings of national commissions of inquiry. It does not include speeches of the leaders of political parties. This distinction is clear so as to prevent the SABC from being a mouthpiece of the ruling party of the day.

Two weeks ago, I appeared before the SABC's inquiry into political interference at the public broadcaster. I spoke at length about how the SABC's editorial polices had in the past facilitated the abuse of the broadcaster by the ruling party in order to essentially disseminate its own propaganda, free of charge.

While the inquiry into political interference at the public broadcaster is still finalising its processes and recommendations, we await the outcomes which will hopefully set out clear guidelines to prevent political interference at the SABC in future.

It is disappointing that the SABC is already rolling back on its commitment in its draft editorial policies to protect its independence by making it clear that it is committed to not allowing political, commercial and personal considerations to influence editorial decisions and that the public broadcaster will not be the mouthpiece of the government of the day and will remain free from any obligation to any interest group.

It is however clear following Cyril Ramaphosa's address as leader of the ANC that back at the SABC it is "business as usual" as far as the ruling party is concerned.

The importance of having an independent public broadcaster cannot be overstated. It is an integral component to building a vibrant democracy and ensuring free and fair elections through a well-informed electorate.

Similarly, the magnitude of what happened last night cannot be overstated either. This is aside from the content of the announcement, which is a whole other matter and deserving of being unpacked at length on its own.

The manner and form of the broadcast is extremely concerning. It is now very much unclear whether the SABC is a public broadcaster, a state broadcaster, or a party broadcaster. The ANC is clearly taking their cue from Beijing.

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule did recently state that the party was going to bring officials from the Communist Party of China on board to help them sharpen their communication machinery ahead of the 2019 elections. If Tuesday's blurring of party, state, and public broadcaster lines are the first inkling of what this unholy alliance will bring South Africa, then we should all be very worried.

The SABC must do better and will be held accountable to breaking its own editorial policies by giving the president of a political party live and full coverage. As is stated in its current editorial policy, it only makes sense that the leader of the opposition party, and indeed other major political parties should be given the right to reply.

- Van Damme is the DA's shadow minister of communications.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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