By Michael Schmidt
The SABC has gagged independent film-makers Broad Daylight Films from even talking about the public broadcaster's canning of their unauthorised documentary on President Thabo Mbeki.
The documentary was advertised to be broadcast on SABC3 on May 17, but was cancelled at the 11th hour.
A carefully worded statement this week from the film's producers, Redi Direko and Ben Cashdan, said they had been "instructed by the SABC's lawyers not to discuss the Thabo Mbeki documentary any further and to hand over any copies in our possession".
The producers said they had "agreed, at this time, to comply". This suggests that Broad Daylight is considering fighting the ban on allowing them to participate in the public debate around the SABC's pulling of the film.
Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) director Jane Duncan said the "gagging order" from the SABC's lawyers was a blatant breach of the producers' constitutional rights to freedom of speech and that the FXI had consulted advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza to fight the case on their behalf.
"The SABC's treatment of the producers is appalling," Duncan said. "The fact that they agreed to a confidentiality clause matters little... there is an overriding public interest in having the issues around the documentary aired.
"The SABC is causing itself immeasurable damage by acting in this fashion. It is giving people the impression that it has something to hide."
Direko, who highlighted Mbeki's popularity in the film, had previously told the Weekend Argus that the pulling of the documentary was obviously a case of self-censorship, saying the SABC's commissioning editors had been delighted with their portrayal of Mbeki's youth and rise to power - but that SABC management had stepped in at the last moment to prevent its being aired.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday - well before Broad Daylight received the instructions from the SABC's lawyers - Saturday Star editor Moegsien Williams and Liz Barratt, the deputy chairperson of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef), viewed a copy of the material.
The brief 24-minute film consists mostly of commentary and discussion of Mbeki's childhood, middle years and rise to power in the ANC.
It begins with footage of the ANC's Mafikeng congress in 1997, where outgoing president Nelson Mandela appeared to challenge Mbeki, warning that when a leader is chosen unopposed, it is important to allay the fears of those who are not his supporters.
Mbeki's mother Epainette said her son had found it difficult to make friends because of his family. Journalist Allister Sparks told how Mbeki's father Govan had confided that he had deliberately severed ties with his son in order to prepare him for the tough life of a son of activist parents.
The film then moves to Lusaka, where Mbeki laid the groundwork for the talks between business and the ANC that would eventually result in negotiated settlement.
The SABC apparently contends that the documentary was defamatory, editorially unbalanced, and that it used archival material out of context, but Cashdan told the Saturday Star - prior to the "gagging order" - that it had not said why it thought so.
Those few who have seen the film feel that the only possibly contentious portion is where it explores the power struggles in the ANC among leaders such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Chris Hani and Cyril Ramaphosa.
Barratt, in a letter on behalf of Sanef to SABC chief executive Dali Mpofu, said the forum was concerned at the corporation's "unprofessional" handling of the matter, with the documentary canned after being advertised, then "three different explanations" issued as to why this had happened.
Barratt said this "feeds into the perception that there is a political agenda behind this decision".
SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said the documentary would remain on ice until the corporation had decided "how to proceed; this doesn't mean we will go ahead with it, however".
He said a possible constitutional challenge from the FXI would be "their own issue" and that Mpofu himself would have to respond to Sanef's letter.