Parliament – Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the man who rose to power at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) over the past few years, was a law to himself who was responsible for the "painful death of public service journalism", MPs heard on Monday.
Testifying on day four of the inquiry into the affairs of the broadcaster's board, Thandeka Gqubule and Krivani Pillay gave Parliament's ad hoc committee tasked with the inquiry harrowing accounts of how they were censored and stopped from carrying out their mandate to inform the public.
Gqubule detailed how, from an pronouncement by Motsoeneng in 2013 that there would be 70 percent positive news and 30 percent negative news – an announcement editorial staff found "illogical" – the situation in the newsroom had deteriorated.
"An independent media is not a luxury. It is not an extra that can be dispensed with when the executive arm of the state wills it," she said.
"The practices of journalism...have been subverted at the SABC, and under Mr Motsoeneng's leadership, supported by the board, this state of affairs has been exacerbated," she said, pointing to the new editorial policy which included the banning of airing violent protests, because in Motsoeneng's view others would be convinced to do the same.
Gqubule, along with several other SABC staffers, more commonly known as the "SABC 8", were dismissed shortly after objecting to the censorship at the broadcaster prior to the local government elections earlier this year.
Although re-instated, she said the situation in which journalists were being victimised for speaking their minds continued.
Gqubule said one of her colleagues, Kgaogelo Magolego, was "summarily dismissed" after interference from Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.
Magolego had attended a government imbizo and asked Muthambi during an interview about the the delayed digital migration process. Muthambi, said Gqubule, had responded according to the sound clip recorded by the journalist: "We are not doing any digital migration or you didn't get a proper briefing, because you are losing it. You must grab these things. This interview on digital migration several times is very boring on a serious note, and I wouldn't like you to play that clip."
Gqubule said Muthambi had, to her "horror and chagrin", interfered directly in the "operations and choices of the newsroom, directing a journalist what to do". "After the minister dived into the shoes of the Limpopo editors by indicating which clips the SABC would play or not, and thus put herself in a position to make editorial decision, in violation of both the Companies Act, which frowns severely on shareholders and board members involving themselves in the operations of a business and violating the spirit of the Broadcasting Act that upholds the independence of the newsroom."
Magolego was charged with "bringing the SABC into disrepute by disrespecting the minister at the Imbizo at Lephalale", and summarily dismissed.
"His life was destroyed and his career unjustly lies in tatters between emails on my phone and calls to to my SABC 8 colleague. Kgaogelo was fired. His clip from that fateful day in Limpopo was never aired. His case is still being heard at the CCMA," said Gqubule.
The interference did not end here.
According to Gqubule, former Eskom CEO, then Transnet CEO, Brian Molefe, had also objected to a line of questioning from journalist Francis Heard – who had asked tough questions related to the purchase of locomotives. She said she was called to the SABC at night – to be greeted by Molefe. "He had his finger in Francis Heard's face, asking if it's the shape of his nose that warranted such a line of questioning".
Gqubule was later asked to gag or discipline Heard, which she refused to do.
"The sum total of all of it is that the Broadcasting Act is no more. We live in a situation where rule books, the Constitution has been torn up and we rule by might and might alone," she said.
SAFM executive producer Krivani Pillay testified in similar fashion, listing how journalists had several times brought up objections to the way news was "manipulated" and "distorted".
In May this year, she was told by Motsoeneng that: "You must defend the organisation. No journalist is independent. The COO has final responsibility of news...you cannot have people who question management."
Seasoned journalist, Jimmy Matthews, who was then acting CEO of the SABC, told journalists to comply with the new editorial policy banning the coverage of protests.
Pillay quoted Matthews as saying to staff: "It's cold outside....you've got two choices, the door or the window."