Johannesburg - The SABC ban on footage of violent protests and crackdown on journalists who questioned it has resulted in a “culture of fear and silence” in the newsroom that effectively prevents the public broadcaster from reporting accurately on the situation in the country, eight journalists facing dismissal argue in court papers.
The policy is so vague, and interpretations of it by management so contradictory, that journalists and editors are no longer sure what they are allowed to cover, resulting in a “farcical” situation where journalists fear they could lose their jobs simply for doing them.
The policy has also been used to prevent coverage not only of protests involving violence or destruction of public property, but also peaceful protests and even criticism of the policy itself, the eight say.
“It is quite clear from the implementation of the protest policy; the journalists’ response and criticism thereto; and the disciplinary actions taken against the journalists, that the SABC is currently engaging in a full-scale operation to capture and control the predominant source of current affairs and news information in South Africa,” SABC economics editor Thandeka Gqubule writes in an affidavit on behalf of herself and the other seven journalists, three of whom were suspended and the remainder slapped with disciplinary charges after questioning the policy.
The affidavit forms part of an urgent application lodged in the Constitutional Court on Friday seeking direct access to the court and for the policy, suspension of and disciplinary action against the journalists to be set aside.
This comes as the SABC also faces a deadline of Tuesday to respond to an Icasa ruling that the policy must be reversed, as well as a High Court application by the Helen Suzman Foundation for the policy to be reviewed and set aside.
The policy has been widely condemned as censorship – including by the governing ANC – but a defiant SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng has vowed to fight attempts to reverse it all the way to the Constitutional Court.
This, Gqubule argues, shows it would take years to reach finality in the matter, and for the public and journalists to get relief, should the court not grant direct access, which it usually does only in exceptional circumstances in a matter involving a constitutional principle.
Gqubule says an audience of 21 million South Africans relies on the public broadcaster for information on news and current affairs and their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and to access information and ideas are under threat.
She requests that the matter be heard before the local government elections on August 3 if possible.
Sketching the “chilling” effect the policy and its implementation have had on the SABC newsroom, Gqubule describes in the affidavit how she and Radio Sonder Grense journalists Foeta Krige and Suna Venter were handed notices of suspension after merely noting their objection to a decision not to cover a peaceful protest by the Right2Know organisation against the SABC policy.
Three other journalists – Busisiwe Ntuli, Krivani Pillay and Jacques Steenkamp – suffered the same fate after questioning the policy and suspension of their colleagues in a letter to management which was later published in the media.
Parliamentary journalist Lukhanyo Calata and contributing editor Vuyo Mvoko were also slapped with disciplinary charges after writing articles in print media criticising the policy.
“The SABC has made debate, criticism, resistance and dissidence a trigger for disciplinary proceedings,” Gqubule says in the affidavit.
“Journalists who adhere to their ethical and constitutional duties towards the public are now persona non grata at the SABC.”
Motsoeneng has extended the scope of the policy to include “negative” stories and criticism of the SABC and of President Jacob Zuma, she says in relation to a pre-elections workshop last month where he made this clear, and has since vowed to “deal with” journalists who question him.
“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,” Gqubule says.
The three organisations that took the policy to Icasa – Media Monitoring Africa, the SOS Coalition and Freedom of Expression Institute – said in response to the journalists’ application to the Constitutional Court it was “an absolutely critical and essential step in ensuring that the madness, and democracy threatening censorship at the SABC is halted with the urgency required”.
“The issues go beyond the public protest policy edict and the illegal suspensions of the eight journalists,” the NGOs said in a statement.
“Indeed, the papers present an utterly chilling picture of what is happening inside the public broadcaster.”
The SABC has been given until Monday to give notice if it intends to oppose the application.