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, which effectively prevents the public broadcaster from reporting accurately on the situation in the country.
That’s the argument presented in court papers to the Constitutional Court by eight journalists facing dismissal, who say policy is so vague and interpretations of it by management so contradictory that journalists and editors are no longer sure what they can cover.
This re-sulted in a “farcical” situation where journalists feared losing their jobs simply for doing their jobs.
The policy had 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 wrote in an affidavit on behalf of the eight, three of whom were suspended and the others 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.
The SABC also faces a Tuesday deadline to respond to an Independent Communications Authority of South Africa 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 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.
The SABC has been given until Monday to give notice if it intends to oppose the application.