Johannesburg - The battle lines were drawn on Monday night, when the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) dismissed four journalists with immediate effect and without disciplinary hearings, according to the trade union Solidarity.
“The dismissal letters state that it is common knowledge that the journalists do not respect the SABC’s management and that they would continue to undermine the SABC’s authority and its management. According to the SABC, the journalists’ behaviour is untenable and the employment relationship has been terminated on July 18,” Solidarity said in a statement.
The SABC dismissed Foeta Krige, Suna Venter, Krivani Pillay and Jacques Steenkamp after they were initially suspended. The public broadcaster also initiated disciplinary action against the four and four of their colleagues because they had allegedly distanced themselves from the SABC’s censorship decision not to broadcast violence during protest actions.
“In my 20 years of involvement in labour relations I have not come across anything like this. It can be likened to a kangaroo court that executes an accused while an appeal process is still pending. In this instance, legal processes are being disregarded,” Solidarity chief executive Dirk Hermann said in a statement.
“It is as if the SABC’s executives believe that they are above the law and that it would be of no consequence. The battle lines have been clearly drawn and we are going to involve the best top lawyers available. We believe in the rule of law and that unlawfulness should have consequences. We will take the matter even further by asking for an order as to costs against (SABC chief operations officer) Hlaudi Motsoeneng in his personal capacity.”
On Thursday, Solidarity is expected to approach the Labour Court in Johannesburg on an urgent basis to set aside the decision to dismiss the journalists, also requesting that the disciplinary process be revoked in its entirety, the trade union said.
“These dismissals follow in the wake of Icasa’s finding that the decision to censor was unlawful. If the decision is unlawful then the dismissal of the journalists, too, is unlawful. Their dismissals should be overturned. The SABC did the opposite and dismissed them because, ironically, they had distanced themselves from an unlawful instruction,” Hermann said.
Solidarity said it served papers on the Labour Court asking that the journalists’ suspensions and disciplinary hearings be suspended pending the rulings in the various legal processes against the SABC’s censorship policy. The public broadcaster was supposed to indicate by 5pm on Monday, whether it would oppose the court action, the trade union said.
“Instead of following court processes, the SABC has dismissed the journalists unilaterally and without a hearing, informing them in a letter of their dismissal with immediate effect. The trade union will now also amend its appeals to court, also requesting that the decision to dismiss the journalists be set aside as a matter of urgency.”
SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago was not immediately available for comment.
On Friday, the eight senior journalists approached the Constitutional Court and requested direct access so that their matter could be heard. They want the court to declare the public broadcaster’s decision to stop showing footage of violent protests in which state property is destroyed as invalid and unconstitutional.
The lawyers for the journalists said that the journalists contend that the policy places SABC journalists in an “intolerable position” where they are forced to choose between protecting their jobs and adhering to their ethical and constitutional duties to “truthfully and fairly report the news”.
In a statement, their lawyers said: “The application relies, amongst others, on Section 16 (1) of the Constitution, which guarantees the rights of journalists and the public to freedom of expression.”
Some journalists were charged after sending a letter to Motsoeneng objecting to the direction the public broadcaster had taken. Others were suspended after they publicly spoke out against the “censorship” of news championed by Motsoeneng at the SABC.
Motsoeneng and the SABC board have come under fire from journalists, unionists, rights bodies, opposition parties and the African National Congress over their stance, which has been equated to censorship.
In the wake of the outcry, the SABC has insisted it will not reverse its ban on visuals of violent protests.
The public broadcaster has even rejected the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) recommendation to lift the ban.
The SABC has since indicated that it will challenge the ruling “even to the highest court”.