Former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his ex news executives refused to state their side of the story during an inquiry probing editorial interference. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

Johannesburg - Former South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his ex news executives Simon Tebele and Jimi Mathews refused to state their side of the story during an inquiry probing editorial interference at the state-owned broadcaster.

The public broadcaster released the report on Monday after a year-long investigation.

"Noteworthy in this process was that major players in this drama - former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, acting group CEO Jimi Matthews and group executive for news Simon Tebele declined the invitations to tell their side of the story.  Hlaudi’s right-hand man during the drama, Jimi Matthews, told us in a telephonic conversation that he didn’t want to 'relive the worst time' of his life through a submission to the commission."

"The man on the other side of Hlaudi, Simon Tebele, also refused to talk to the commission, saying he was scared he might be assassinated if he talked. He has barricaded himself and his family in his home and is under constant security guard. He points to the murder of his friend and former head of SABC legal services, Sizwe Vilakazi in November 2017 and believes Vilakazi was killed because of the things he had uncovered in the course of his work in the SABC."  

"The police hasn’t solved Vilakazi’s murder yet, so the commission is not in a position to pronounce on it, but it is worrying that a former head of the biggest news organisation in the country is living in fear that isn’t easy to dismiss as paranoia."

Lawyers representing Motsoeneng wrote to the commission claiming that their client was denied an opportunity by a parliamentary ad hoc committee that probed the SABC and that a report was produced without him having been given an opportunity to be heard by MPs. Motsoeneng did not see the point of participating in the inquiry as "it was necessitated by the same report of the ad hoc committee", the lawyers said.

"It is ironic that a person who had been screaming for a chance to be heard thinks it is logical that he skips it and instead offers a blanket denial. The commission is wondering what he and his legal advisors thought the value of this denial would be," read the report.

"Matthews resigned from the SABC dramatically in a midnight tweet on June 27, 2016.  Again, the apology [in his tweet] rings hollow when he chooses to remain silent now when his voice needs to be heard to help us to get to the bottom of this matter."

Motsoeneng, ex-communication minister Faith Muthambi and the board are blamed for the financial collapse of the SABC when he was at the helm. Motsoeneng, who has since formed a political party, allegedly ran the SABC recklessly and gave himself an irregular 63 percent salary increase in 12 months while COO.

The inquiry, led by Press Council director Joe Thloloe, found an atmosphere of fear and abuse of power at the broadcaster and editorial interference by Muthambi, the then SABC board and Motsoeneng. Matthews and Tebele carried out the top bosses' instructions across newsrooms on matters such as editorial policies and ethics.

The Democratic Alliance said it would bring charges against Muthambi following the findings of the inquiry.

DA communications spokeswoman Phumzile van Damme said the findings indicate not only that Muthambi violated the Broadcasting Act which establishes the SABC as an independent institution, but also that she misled Parliament during the legislature's inquiry into the broadcaster in 2016. 

"During her testimony she explicitly said she 'never' interfered in the editorial decision of the public broadcaster," Van Damme recalled.

She said the former minister had therefore directly contravened section 17(2) of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliaments and Provincial Legislatures Act, which makes it an offence, punishable with a fine or up to 12 months in prison to give false evidence to the legislature or one of its committees.

"The findings in today’s report strengthens the findings made by Parliamentary legal services in August 2017 that she has 'tried to mislead Parliament'," she added.

"Given the fresh finding in today’s report, the DA will be laying criminal charges against Muthambi for her violation of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities Act for misleading Parliament during the SABC inquiry."

Van Damme said the findings of the Thloloe inquiry should serve as a warning to the ruling party to respect the independence of the public broadcaster. 

"The report also revealed that the ANC has 'hovered' over the decisions made at the SABC. The DA believes that the current board of the SABC must continue to enforce its independence. The report must serve as a stern warning to the ANC not to engage in political interference at the SABC."

African News Agency (ANA)