The explanation offered by the SABC for its decision to bar coverage and broadcasting of violent protests lacks credibility, writes David Niddrie.
Last Friday, progressive journalists (among them journalists from the SABC) and media support organisations picketed the SABC’s Joburg headquarters and marched to the Constitutional Court. Similar pickets and marches took place in Cape Town and Durban.
All were protesting against censorship of the public broadcaster’s news and current affairs programming, unilaterally imposed by the illegally appointed chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
The explanations offered by the SABC for its decision to bar coverage and broadcasting of violent protests not only lack any credibility, but also demonstrate a level of contempt for ordinary South Africans that has no place in any democracy, and none at all in an organisation, the ANC, whose supporters are drawn mainly from among South Africa’s working class and poorcommunities.
The ANC’s Media Charter not only opposed any restrictions on the right of the media to report, but imposes on the media a duty to provide South Africans with accurate information on which they can base decisions that affect their lives.
And if significant segments of communities in part of the country are protesting - violently or otherwise - all South Africans are entitled to know that. They need to know that.
If you withhold that information from them, you are effectively lying to them - lying by omission is lying.
But Motsoeneng has decided - in the name of the SABC, and thus of the government that formally owns it, and of the people of South Africa who, directly or indirectly, own and pay for it - that SABC audiences are to be denied this vital information.
What are the implications?
The overwhelming majority of SABC TV viewers and radio listeners are poor and working class.
What Motsoeneng has thus decided is that poor and working class South Africans can’t be trusted with the truth. To prevent them from blindly joining the protests or doing something equally irrational (voting for the wrong party?), he has decided the SABC therefore has to lie to them - lie by omission, but lie.
This logic is almost inseparable from the kind of logic that prevailed the last time the SABC imposed similar censorship - in the late 1980s. And it demonstrates the same level of contempt for the poor and working class South Africans.
How can a democratically elected government, or an organisation that produced the Media Charter allow this kind of contempt for so many South Africans to be blatantly trumpeted to the world by a publicly owned institution?
And we should recall the consequences for the SABC of lying to South Africans in the 1980s. Ordinary people, working class and poor people, are not stupid, whatever Motsoeneng may believe. If you lie to them and they find out you’re lying - and they will, just as they did in the 1980s - they will simply stop believing you, or listening to you.
Motsoeneng and his cohorts have already done untold damage to the SABC. Officially introducing lying as a news policy could ensure the damage is fatal.
It is time to put a stop to this, and to do so in the name of the organisation that gave the country the Freedom Charter and the Media Charter, the ANC, on whose behalf neither Motsoeneng nor his backers can claim to speak.
We therefore salute the marchers, and the true heroes of this process, and the champions of the people: those courageous SABC journalists who have publicly defied the censorship, those who have already been suspended, Thandeka Gqubule, Foeta Krige and Suna Venter, and those who have bravely risked dismissal - Lukhanyo Calata, Vuyo Mvoko and many others.
They are fighting to defend all South Africans’ right and freedom to know the truth about what is happening in their own country.
By their actions, Motsoeneng and his ilk seem to believe many South Africans are too irresponsible to have that right.
If the Freedom Charter’s promise is to be honoured - that the people shall govern - it is essential that they do so knowing what is happening around them.
We should not forget that the SABC’s outgoing head of news and acting chief executive, Jimi Matthews, may have fled from Motsoeneng’s side. But the affidavit he gave to the Icasa Complaints Committee defending the censorship remains with the committee, informing its decision. As does the letter he wrote in support of a legal bid to keep Motsoeneng in his illegally occupied office.
If he wishes to join Gqubule, Krige, Venter, Mvoko and Calata, he should have the courage to withdraw them publicly and to tell the truth.
* David Niddrie is a media strategist. He was head of strategic planning at SABC from 1994 to 1997 and served as a board member on the SABC’s board from January to October 2010.
** This article was first published in Umsebenzi Online.
*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.