Army presence at SABC likely to curtail media freedom - rights body

The SABC building, located in Sea Point in Cape Town. Picture Brenton Geach/African news Agency Archives

The SABC building, located in Sea Point in Cape Town. Picture Brenton Geach/African news Agency Archives

Published Aug 8, 2021


DURBAN - Media freedom organisation Right2Know (R2K) has raised concerns about the sudden decision to deploy the army to guard the premises of the SABC in Johannesburg and Durban.

The lobby group says the presence of the army will not only make SABC journalists feel intimidated, but also members of the public who work as sources for the journalists as they would feel as though they were being watched all the time.

On Sunday morning, SABC board chair Bongumusa Makhathini, speaking on an SABC news channel programme, admitted that the army had even been spotted in some of the newsrooms.

But Makhathini defended this, saying they were conducting a threat assessment, which includes knowing where the exit points were and everything related to security inside the buildings.

Makhathini said the SABC’s editorial independence was sacrosanct and they were ready to defend it if there was a threat to it.

However, R2K national organiser Lazola Kati said that in an ideal democratic society the SABC, a public broadcaster, should be a beacon of media freedom, and the army presence was likely to curtail it.

She added that what was even more worrying about the army deployment was that last week the SABC had to remove a spying clause allowing it to have access to the private communication of its staff.

“We do believe that the presence of the army within and outside the SABC will create an environment of intimidation,” Kati told Independent Media.

While the army’s presence was apparently visible on Saturday, by Sunday, around noon, they had scaled back and only two soldiers were spotted guarding the entrance of the public broadcaster’s offices in central Durban.

Some SABC staff members said the presence of the army within the broadcaster had left workers divided. Some welcomed the army’s presence as a way of ensuring that, in the event of an uprising, the SABC should not be used to spread propaganda.

Others are said to feel that the public broadcaster is being used once again in the ANC’s political battles.

“Of course, there are those who feel it was wrong for the army to be seen inside the newsroom if they claim that their mandate was to protect the building,” one SABC staffer said.

“Remember that in the past, during the apartheid era, the army even influenced editorial decisions, so those opposed to that feel the army should secure the building and stay away from the newsroom,” the staffer said.

SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini said the SABC was secured because it is a national key point. Dlamini said, for security reasons, they couldn’t divulge how many soldiers had been deployed to the SABC assignment and when they would leave.

“Remember that our deployment runs until October,” Dlamini said.

The Presidency spokesperson Tyrone Seal did not respond when asked about the deployment of soldiers when the peak of the unrest was in the middle of last month.


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