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SABC finally caves in on censorship

Published Jul 20, 2016


T HE axed SABC journalists now want to be reinstated immediately, after the public broadcaster’s controversial editorial policy banning footage of violent protests came crumbling down in court yesterday.

The scales appeared to tilt in their favour when the high court in Pretoria granted an order interdicting the public broadcaster from enforcing its censorship policy.

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Soon after Judge John Murphy made the order, the lawyer of the fired SABC employees, Aslam Moosajee, wrote to the public broadcaster, inviting it to withdraw the termination notices it had served on his clients.

“I also asked them to say when my clients would be going back to work. But I have not yet received a response,” Moosajee said.

Moosajee, of Norton Rose Fulbright, intends to challenge in the Constitutional Court the SABC’s policy barring violent protests from being aired. He filed papers on Friday, but added a supplementary affidavit following the court’s ruling yesterday.

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Yesterday’s ruling came as the Labour Court in Joburg was due to hear the journalists’ fight against their dismissals today.

But even before yesterday’s court hearing was due to start, the SABC threw in the towel. The SABC’s advocate Bantubonke Tokota SC told Judge Murphy that they conceded to the interim interdict. He, however, made it clear this was provided that it did not infringe on the public broadcaster’s editorial independence.

Advocate David Unterhalter SC insisted on a carefully formulated order, so that there were no misunderstandings in future. “We do not want the SABC’s editorial independence to be used in a bid to avoid the terms of the interdict.”

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It was made clear in the order that while the SABC may exercise its editorial independence, it may not shy away from broadcasting all forms of demonstrations or events, even if these reflected negatively upon President Jacob Zuma.

Not only did the SABC concede to all the terms, but it even agreed to pay the legal costs of the entire application, on a punitive scale.

The effect of the agreement, which was made an order of the court, is that the SABC will, meanwhile, have to adhere to the Icasa (Independent Communications Authority of SA) ruling – lifting its censorship ban – until either the Helen Suzman Foundation launched a further application to review the legality of the SABC’s censorship policy or until another court, such as the Constitutional Court, had spoken the final word.

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The lawyer representing four of the journalists, Anton van der Bijl, of the labour union Solidarity, was quick to claim victory, saying their case had been strengthened by the SABC’s promise that it would no longer exercise self-censorship.

“I am positive that, given the outcome of the high court… they’ll hopefully soon go back to work.”

Van der Bijl had kept a watchful eye over yesterday’s proceedings, in which the Helen Suzman Foundation launched an urgent application for an interim order interdicting the SABC from implementing its controversial decision.

Icasa recently directed the SABC to withdraw its resolution to no longer broadcast footage of destruction of public property during protests. The SABC at the time vowed to take this order on review, but spokesman Kaizer Kganyago, following yesterday’s court outcome, remained mum on whether they would go ahead with this.

Until yesterday, the SABC had refused to give in to demands to drop its policy of not broadcasting violent protests during which public property was destroyed.

Kganyago remained tight lipped about whether the SABC will now go ahead and broadcast violent protests which include the destruction of public property.

“I cannot comment on the practical effect of the order we have agreed to. Our lawyers will guide us further and take us through the order and how to implement it.”

Kganyago said the outcome of this case had no bearing on the labour application brought by the axed journalists. Francis Antonie, head of the Helen Suzman Foundation, said they and other media watchdog associations would keep a close eye on the SABC.

He was confident that the outcome of yesterday’s proceedings would benefit the axed journalists. “I am certain they will be able to go back to work soon.”

And almost simultaneously yesterday, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi was hauled before Parliament to brief MPs on the crisis at the SABC. Chairman of the portfolio committee on communications Humphrey Maxegwana said Muthambi would appear before the committee in August.

The SACP also hailed yesterday’s court order.

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