The South African Broadcasting Censorship : Public or State Broadcaster?

2016-06-13 00:16

Over the last few weeks ,much has been said about policy changes at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and how these policies are increasingly seen as regressive and politically motivated. The SABC is by definition a public broadcaster which means it serves a public purpose rather than a commercial one but a vast number of South Africans no longer ascribe that meaning to the SABC and this piece will focus on why and what the implication of this is for the young democracy.

I found myself watching the SAMAs on SABC two Saturdays ago and noticed for the second year in a row , that a number of the celebrities presenting the awards were in fact Cabinet Ministers . This is of course very unusual because other countries don’t do this but more importantly because it seemed like a government / ANC sponsored event. I even found myself joking with my friends that this was an instance of SABC capture. I suppose that may be exaggerating and fussing over nothing here but when seen together with rest of the piece , it points to a potential threat to the autonomy of the SABC.

In 2015  , the CEO of the SABC ,Mr. Hlaudi Motsoeneng, took issue with journalists who ‘overly cover crime reports’ because he felt that such reporting leads to an increase in crime among the youth. This was the first indication of his intentions to (further) regulate the public broadcaster. This year he announced that there would be no more visuals of destruction of property and violence from protests as it would paint a negative picture of the country. He also argued that the ban would advance national interests and promote nation building because reporting such issues ‘incites violence’.

Sigh. Where do I begin?

Firstly, contrary to what the SABC management thinks ,  this kind of conduct does amount to censorship since censorship is the suppression of information or free speech. Censorship sometimes serves a legitimate purpose but in most cases it is used with a sinister or ulterior motive. I really struggle to see how visuals of destroyed property or violent protests incite violence and destroy nation building. If anything, it points to how much more needs to be done in our communities to reach desired levels of progress. The timing for this new policy couldn’t be any more perfect with the Local Government elections coming up. Most of the protests that will be blacked out are centred on service delivery since these are the most prevalent types of strikes in South Africa.

The people of South Africa are entitled to know what is happening in various communities across the country .The arguments advanced by the SABC are so condescending they should in fact offer an apology for suggesting that its viewers are so immature and primitive that visuals of violence at protests will spark violence. That logic is deeply offensive and undermines everyone’s intelligence. No research has been provided by the SABC to prove the link between such visuals and incitement of violence but the more probable reason is that this policy will cover for many failed local councils .Consequently , some voters may never know just how useless their councils are and how angry people are since these matters will be censored. Could this be an instance of external political influence in determining content ? I certainly think that conclusion is not far-fetched.

Interestingly, the ANC was quick to welcome the decision and this only raised more red flags about the origins of this decision. The SABC describes its role as being one of covering all current affairs matters and coverage of essential news. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that by cutting out this area of coverage, the SABC is violating its own mandate. In any event , the SABC already screens violent series and movies which are way more likely to ‘incite violence’ than a minute clip on property destroyed by a group of protesters.

As if that wasn’t enough, the SABC then went on to ban newspaper headlines from being aired on SABC channels. The logic behind this decision is even more ridiculous than the first. Apparently, the SABC does not want to give the print media ‘free publicity’ anymore. As a public broadcaster , the SABC has a duty to provide as wide a news coverage as possible especially because it is the only source of information many South Africans will have access to. It should also be noted that the EditorsSA show which brought together news editors from across the media fraternity, was canned before this decision. It’s not a hidden fact that most of the newspapers out there are critical of both the Government and the ANC. It isn’t surprising then that this decision comes before an election period. Is this not a way of cutting negative or anti-government stories from the public broadcaster? It certainly does seem that way and makes one question if the broadcaster serves the interests of the public or the State.

The recent censorship spree that the SABC has embarked on is not new territory for South Africa. The Apartheid State openly dictated the function of the SABC and ordered censorship of anything remotely related to the ANC or the growing frustrations of the black majority. The SABC served as a propaganda tool for the National Party and the Apartheid regime generally. This is why the introduction of similar policies and practices albeit under a different government must not be treated lightly. It should also be noted that the SABC still refuses to show the Miners Shot Down documentary which is a documentary on the Marikana Massacre. The Massacre is a sad part of democratic South Africa’s history and no doubt remains a matter of public interest which is why the SABC should have aired the documentary. There is only one sector that does not want the country to see what happened which only points to who pulls the strings at the SABC. The same power play revealed itself in 2015 when the SABC decided to censor the violent removal of EFF parliamentarians during the SONA.

Some of you may also recall how  the SABC pulled an episode of Special Assignment featuring Zapiro off air in 2009. In 2012 , the Fish and Chip ad on Nkandla was never screened for supposedly insulting the President while the Project Spear documentary was also banned in the same year . The documentary was on the dealings of some South African banks and the apartheid government shortly before the transition to democracy. The National Treasury under the Apartheid government ‘donated’ billions of rands to a series of banks but the reasons for the donation are unknown. The Project Spear case is the most absurd form of censorship ever exhibited by the SABC. Not only did it not screen it but it wanted it to never be shown to anyone and refused to sell the rights to the documentary maker , Sylvia Vollenhoven. The legality of the SABC’s actions were challenged in the South Gauteng High Court a few weeks back and we await the Court’s judgment in this regard. I will come back to this after the judgment has been handed down but the action of the SABC still leaves us all wondering what is being hidden from the public and who wants it to be hidden. In 2012, a Metro FM show meant to discuss the Mangaung ANC conference was cancelled because of lack of ‘balance’. The imbalance was supposedly caused by the absence of an ANC representative even though the show’s panel was completely made up of print journalists. In the same year, the SABC 3 show ‘Interface’ had to drop an episode featuring Zapiro . The reasons tendered were that  he lacked balance and his cartoons were ‘insulting’.  A year later, the Big Debate show was removed because of an ‘editorial oversight’ but in actual fact the show was very critical of government. There’s no prize for guessing who pulled the strings there. Later on in the year , SABC staff were instructed not to report the booing of President Zuma at the memorial service for former President , Nelson Mandela.

In 2014 , Julius Malema’s interview  was cut short and banned before finally being shown.  This was followed by a series of DA adverts being banned both on TV and radio. The adverts showed both imagery of Marikana and Nkandla. The SABC argued that the Nkandla matter was before the courts and thus could not be shown and the Marikana imagery would only incite further violence. It’s quite clear what is going on here. The SABC has slowly but surely embarked on a dangerous path of censorship that will soon transform it from a public broadcaster to a state broadcaster.

Some people will argue that these isolated incidents are not enough to conclude that the SABC is on dangerous turf but one look at Zimbabwe , once revered as the jewel of democracy in Africa in the 80s and early 90s , will reveal how media capture and censorship is a process rather than an event. Hidden hands started pulling strings and effecting seemingly insignificant changes to the public broadcaster. These hidden hands managed within a short space of time to convert it from being a public broadcaster to a State broadcaster. Rome was not built in a day nor is an entire broadcasting corporation captured in one day. It all starts with one policy that goes unchallenged. I’ll leave you with the task of deciding when this censorship becomes a threat to democracy and a free society in general.

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