By Gordon Bell

The South African Broadcasting Corporation's (SABC) news programming chairperson Thami Mazwai has caused a stir again in parliament by dismissing objectivity in journalism as a "delusion" that simply "does not exist".

Addressing the national assembly's communications committee on Tuesday, he said South Africa's public broadcaster should not be driven by Western, liberal views on media freedom.

"Others on the board may feel different, but as Thami Mazwai I feel that objectivity is a delusion... the notion known as objectivity does not exist."

All persons, journalists included, interpreted issues or happenings differently, he said.

Mazwai faced heavy criticism from opposition parties, and the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), for comments made before the committee in August last year, such as that the SABC could not afford to be driven by old clichés, such as objectivity or the right of the editor.

Democratic Alliance communications spokesperson Dene Smuts said on Tuesday she was even more concerned by Mazwai's latest comments, saying he was clearly linking SABC news to government objectives.

Mazwai said all stakeholders, including political, religious and traditional leaders should come together to help define what was seen as the role of the media in the South African context.

People from different communities or cultural backgrounds would have very different perceptions of what was right or wrong.

"What I will fight against is the view that liberal values must always be imposed on us... we must allow South Africans to determine what is right or wrong for them.

"(We should) define what media freedom is instead of us swallowing hook, line and sinker what the role of the media is," he said.

Referring to the SABC's draft editorial policy, CEO Peter Matlare said the SABC had no intention of diluting its constitutional independence.

While the normal newsroom decisions should and would continue to be taken by journalists, matters of a strategic nature had to be dealt with at a higher level.

If the board and management were responsible for the rest of the business of the broadcaster, there was no reason why news, which was critical to the organisation, should be excluded.

This policy was based on international experiences, and took into account issues of corporate governance and accountability, he said.

Opposition parties have criticised the SABC's proposal of a decision-making system of "upward referral", with responsibility for news decisions ultimately lying outside the newsroom.

SABC board chairperson Vincent Maphai appealed to MPs to allow the corporation time to consolidate after a tumultuous period of change over the last four years.

He said it had been difficult for the SABC to define its place when new regulations or legislation were introduce every six to eight months.

"It has been very disruptive, the continuous requirements for fundamental re-thinking of what we are doing is not particularly helpful."

After trying to establish an identity for its three channels, the broadcaster now had to make further changes to accommodate the planned two new regional channels.

Planning for the new channels should be complete by the end of the year, and the SABC should be ready to be "corporatised" by October this year, Maphai said. - Sapa