SABC dictator gone rogue

As group executive of Corporate Affairs, Hlaudi Motsoeneng will oversee all provincial offices of the SABC.

As group executive of Corporate Affairs, Hlaudi Motsoeneng will oversee all provincial offices of the SABC.

Published Jul 17, 2016


Cape Town - Details of SABC’s strongman Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s full-frontal assault on freedom of information and expression – rights enshrined in the constitution – have finally emerged in an explosive affidavit filed in the Constitutional Court on Friday.

It started off badly, and went rapidly downhill from there, if affidavits on behalf of eight of the SABC’s senior journalists (who now face disciplinary steps for having the nerve to question the policy) are anything to go by.

But even the draconian May ban that the SABC chief operating officer slapped on footage of violent protests could not have prepared staff at the public broadcaster for what was to follow.

 From the outset, the policy was unclear as to what exactly would be permitted henceforth.

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A public statement released on May 26 said the SABC had taken a decision not to “show footage of people burning public institutions like schools” but added: “(W)e are not going to provide publicity to such actions.”

This created a grey zone in which the policy could mean either that protests, even violent ones, would be covered but no visuals of the violence shown, or that there would be no coverage (“publicity”) of such protests whatsoever.

Motsoeneng went on air the next day and muddied the waters further, suggesting that all protests would be covered but there would be no visual footage of them, only to add that if the SABC itself were to be attacked, this would be broadcast.

To make matters utterly opaque, the broadcaster issued a statement “clarifying” the position, to the effect that it would cover protests up until the point where they turned violent, when such “aspects” would not be aired, while it would “not provide publicity to such actions, which it describes as destructive”.

The SABC has been ordered to reverse its decision by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

It has until Tuesday to comply.

Motsoeneng remained defiant as Icasa told him that South Africa was not a dictatorship.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe also waded in, saying he was making a mistake if he thought he was untouchable.

Also read: ANC brings MPs into SABC battle

Unsurprisingly, as the journalists stated in the affidavit, the decision left editorial staff thoroughly confused as to what was permitted, causing them to self-censor their work.

But if the policy itself was bad enough, its interpretation and practical implementation by management “far exceeded even the multiple possibilities permitted by its contradictory terms”.

Radio Sonder Grense senior staff were called to a meeting at Radio Park on May 31 after airing comments from independent analysts criticising the policy and were told in no uncertain terms that such criticism would not be tolerated.

“We are cleaning up the organisation,” Motsoeneng told them.

“People are doing their own stuff. There are many journalists outside that want to work for the SABC. The environment outside is bad. No person (within the SABC) is independent… You must adapt or find a job elsewhere.”

It was clear that not only was coverage of protests subject to censorship, but so was criticism of the decision.

“(If) people do not adhere, get rid of them,” Motsoeneng told the journalists.

“(W)e cannot have people who question management. This is the last time we have a meeting of this kind.”

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To drive the point home, then acting group chief executive Jimi Matthews, who subsequently resigned in shame, added: “It is cold outside. If you do not like it you can go. You’ve got two choices, the door or the window.”

This already sweeping scope for censorship was stretched even further at an elections workshop in Magaliesburg on June 6 and 7. Motsoeneng instructed journalists not to focus on “negative stories” as this caused them to “mislead listeners”.

“We have removed news and replaced it with content,” he told them, according to the affidavit.

“If you mess up the organisation, you mess up your life. I am in charge. News is now part of operations.”

In case this left them in any doubt as to what he intended, he continued: “I’m in charge. You must adhere to my instructions. President Zuma is the president of the country. I do not regard him as ANC. You cannot treat him the same. We will give him more time. And you can question everyone except our president. We need to respect him, especially you SABC.”

”I expect you all to align with my instruction.”

What had begun as a decision not to show public violence, purportedly because it encouraged other communities to copy the behaviour, had now been stretched to exclude any questioning of the president and the need to show him respect.

As the journalists put it in their affidavit, it was now clear that management were “intent on withholding a substantial array of information from the people who rely on its services for their news and current affairs”.

”In particular, the SABC is intent on depicting a distorted version of reality – punctuated by the exclusion of all negative stories – preventing the citizens it is mandated to serve from receiving true and accurate information about the state of the country.”

A sense of fear, confusion and despair swept through the newsroom, as a rift opened between those who felt an obligation to preserve their journalistic ethics and those who wanted to save their jobs.

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The suspension and launching of disciplinary proceedings against the eight, including stalwarts such as economics editor Thandeka Gqubule, Special Assignment executive producer Busisiwe Ntuli and contributing editor Vuyo Mvoko, spelled out the repercussions for anyone who stood up to Motsoeneng.

”As journalists we have lost our credibility, integrity and independence,” Gqubule wrote in the affidavit.

She then painted a frightening picture of life at the mercy of Motsoeneng and the Orwellian future of broadcasting on his watch.

”Our morale is at a low and, ultimately, the ability of newsrooms to cover the news of the day is fraught with various personal and political concerns, hindering any real possibility of true, accurate and fair coverage of the news,” she stated.

Political Bureau

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