HLAUDI MOTSOENENG, the man who rose to power at the SABC over the past few years, was a law unto himself who was responsible for the “painful death of public service journalism”, MPs heard yesterday.
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.
The testimonies yesterday came after Western Cape High court Judge Owen Rogers on Monday ruled that Motsoeneng must go, in a application brought against him by the DA.
Judge Rogers ruled that Motsoeneng may not occupy any position at the SABC, and has to vacate his post unless the public protector’s report is set aside or a new disciplinary hearing clears him.
The ruling makes Motsoeneng’s appointment, which had been backed by Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi at SABC, invalid.
Gqubule detailed how, from a 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 earlier this year.
Although reinstated, 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 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 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, which 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 was summarily dismissed.
“His life was destroyed, and his career unjustly lies in tatters between emails on my phone and calls 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, the former Eskom chief executive, then Transnet boss, 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 was the shape of his nose that warranted such a line of questioning.”
Gqubule was later asked to discipline Heard, which she refused to do.
SAFM executive producer Pillay said journalists had often objected to news being “manipulated” and “distorted”.
In May this year, Motsoeneng had told her: “You must defend the organisation. No journalist is independent. The chief operating officer has final responsibility of news… you cannot have people who question management.”
Seasoned journalist Jimi Matthews, then the acting chief executive, told journalists to comply with banning protest coverage.
Pillay quoted Matthews as threatening: “It’s cold outside. You’ve got two choices, the door or the window.”
Journalist Lukhanyo Calata said under oath he would illustrate “an unwanted culture of news censorship” at the SABC. Calata said he was told to use only sound bites that portrayed President Jacob Zuma in a positive light.
When Calata protested, he was told, “Calata, how will you live knowing it’s because of you that my children are not being fed?”
Calata also alleged he was once called back to work at 8pm to rework a package to include footage of Motsoeneng.
The hearing continues.