By Paula Slier

Prior to joining Russia Today, I was contracted as a freelance news reporter in the Middle East for the SABC.

The Sisulu commission report into the blacklisting of certain analysts by the public broadcaster found that the direct instruction by SABC news director Dr Snuki Zikalala not to use my reports from the Middle East "because of alleged bias" was "improper and against SABC policy".

Furthermore it found that Zikalala's decision was "motivated by a political position... which has no place in a public broadcaster.

For Dr Zikalala, it was a question of support for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation which, from the perspective of his 'movement' was a matter of principle".

The fact that Zikalala can openly admit he supports the PLO is astounding. So, if I had been a card-carrying member of the PLO, would that have been OK?

It's one of God's little jokes that I am working for a national broadcaster that used to be "Snukified" and now thanks its lucky stars it no longer is.

My bosses in Moscow get up in the morning with renewed vigour, work freely, and look back and laugh at the days when they were "Snukified"; whereas my own cowed countrymen at the SABC can only rue tomorrow.

There's a lot of talk in South Africa about freedom of the press, government pressure, growing conformism and even the creation of a culture of censorship.

In the former Soviet Union they used to have all of these down to an art.

Andrey Vladimirov remembers it all too well. He is news editor at Russia Today, the 24-hour English international TV news channel, for which I am the Middle East correspondent.

"In the days of communism, inside every single publishing house and broadcast station there was a high-ranking censor person who belonged to the communist party. He had a clear vision of what was good or bad for the viewer.

"There was no live television coverage because it was difficult to control. Everything had to be double-checked, even the people who appeared on television had to be cleared several times over.

"You had to support the communist party and never say a wrong word or else you'd be dealt with severely."

The major difference between pre-1990 Moscow and 2006 Johannesburg is that the censorship and muzzling were backed up by the secret police and militia, who had labour camps instead of a public service mandate.

This presents a supreme irony. At least in communist Russia, the little political freedom could be blamed on torture, intimidation and the boot.

Yet, in a South Africa that basks in freedom, it seems sufficient for good men to do nothing - or say no action will be taken after studying the report - to achieve the throttling of press freedom at the national broadcaster.

Other parallels between SABC News now and Russian television then are too striking to ignore.

Says Vladimirov: "There was always a lot of coverage around communist events and celebrations.

The 'Great October Revolution' was celebrated in detail every year and pictures broadcast from commemorations in Prague, Budapest, St Petersberg and elsewhere so the viewer was left with the impression that the whole world was rejoicing.

"International news was covered but the underlying message was always the same: we are the best, the biggest, and the whole world should be communist.

"If there was a party meeting, there'd be special coverage and a small event such as the opening of a factory in some far off town in Siberia was broadcast as a huge victory for Soviet workers."

At the SABC, government events, opinions and interests are shoved down people's throats.

If you are sick of the sight of minister after minister promoting their departments without question, at least you can console yourself with the fact that it was worse in Moscow in Andropov's day.

"After years of censorship and sterile news, freedom is something Russians treasure," says Vladimirov.

"Even today, many people do not trust what they see on TV - the damage from the Soviet years still lingers.

"It's strange that censorship should be happening in South Africa because you don't have a forceful party or regime that's controlling what news is told."

Russia Today takes this news and freedom business seriously. It is doing what would have been unthinkable 20 years ago and broadcasts from Moscow to people around the world.

Feedback has been good and Russia Today has even waded into one of the most controversial stories on the planet - the Middle East.

"We've been on air for little more than a year," says Vladimirov.

"We receive three times more news from our Middle East office where things are always happening than our bureaus elsewhere. It's our best department because our team is always on the spot when news is breaking.

"Our coverage is absolutely objective and you can see from our online feedback that we have viewers on both sides who are angry and those who are satisfied.

"You can't satisfy everyone and the fact that neither side is more satisfied than the other shows we are in the middle."

I am just happy that I now work for a free and vibrant news organisation that grabbed press freedom with both hands by asking, in the spirit of JFK, "why not?" instead of merely "why?".

It seems that now is an opportune time for the SABC board and those above to study the demeaning nonsense going on at the national broadcaster and imagine what a towering organisation it could be - and then ask "why not?"

The SABC is a powerful broadcaster that every South African should respect, revere and aspire to.

The fact that fewer and fewer do so should prompt every commission to tell the people in power that it is time to act with the symbolic removal of the rot at the top. - Independent Foreign Service