SABC's non-flighting of the DA ad: Wrong, but not surprising
Scandals, tragedies and controversies during President Jacob Zuma's administration have given opposition parties much to campaign on. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has taken the baton and through Nkandla, Marikana and unemployment, blamed the ANC for the South Africa's ills. Not everyone, however, is happy with their advertising strategy. First, the ANC took the party to court telling voters that Zuma “stole”. The SABC has since decided to pull a DA advertisement it claims could incite violence. It appears that, just months after the negative Public Protector's report, the public broadcaster is exposing itself, more than Thuli Madonsela ever could. By GREG NICOLSON.
The DA advert is slick. Gauteng poster boy Mmusi Maimane stands in front of a bathroom sink, looking into the mirror, discussing the ANC with himself. “So they say they have taken South Africa forward,” he says, acknowledging the party's past leaders. “But since 2008 we have seen President Jacob Zuma's ANC, an ANC that is corrupt, an ANC for the connected few. It's an ANC that is taking us backwards. Two hundred million rands spent on upgrading the president's private house.”
Watch: The DA ad SABC would not air
The frame cuts between Maimane looking in the mirror, then straight at the camera, an image of ANC leaders holding champaigne glasses, Nkandla, and the DA's march to Luthuli House. “Where are the jobs, President Zuma? iANC ayisafani.” Maimane ends before the advert cuts to a rally where he yells, “Together we can bring hope!”
iANC ayisafani – the ANC's not the same – has been the DA's message this election. It's a clear attempt to get those who believed in the ANC of The Struggle, the ANC of Mandela and even Mbeki, but who doubt Zuma, to vote DA. The controversy comes 25 seconds in. Photographer Alaister Russell's picture of police shooting rubber bullets at close range at people in Bekkersdal appears and Maimane says, “We've seen a police force killing our own people.”
That was where the the SABC had enough and decided to pull the advert. According to the public broadcaster, it breaks Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) regulations by inciting violence; it violates the Electoral Act by spreading false information to win votes; and it breaks Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules by comparing one product (the ANC) to another (the DA), which is prohibited. The SABC also says it pins issues on an individual – Zuma.
Icasa's regulations prohibit political adverts that could “provoke or incite any unlawful, illegal or criminal act, or that may be perceived as condoning or lending support to any such act”. A letter from the SABC shows it believes Maimane's comments that police are “killing our own people” can be interpreted to mean that police are killing DA members (“our people”), which could incite retaliation attacks against the SAPS. The Electoral Act prohibits false information aimed at influencing the outcome of an election and the SABC says this extends to allegations not tested in court, such as Nkandla. The ASA prohibits attacking another product to promote your own, but that doesn't generally apply to political advertising and it's unusual for a broadcaster, rather than the ASA, to pull an advert for such reasons.
The DA has immediately complained to Icasa and in its submission the party goes into detail as to why the decision to pull the advert, as well as a series of radio adverts trying to woo those thinking of voting for other opposition parties which were also rejected by the SABC, is illegal.
The party said it is important they advertise on SABC because the public broadcaster reaches half of all TV viewers. It accused the SABC of trying to support the ANC and in the process infringing on its right to freedom of expression and right to campaign. “It appears that the SABC rejected the advertisements, not in order to protect the public from incitement to violence or to prevent the spreading of falsehoods in the guise of electioneering, but to protect the [ANC] and its leader President Jacob Zuma from valid and legitimate criticism on matters of clear public interest,” the DA wrote to Icasa.
The party's reasoning is an indictment against the state. The police did kill the Marikana miners and a slew of protesters this year. Unlike the DA's SMS, which was criticised for suggesting Zuma “stole”, the advert says R200 million was spent on Zuma's house – which is accepted by the state (who would add that the majority went to security upgrades). Bringing ASA into the discussion is bizarre, say the DA, as their rules on attacking other brands don't apply to political parties. The DA's scathing on the SABC's claim it doesn't allow attacks on individuals: “The SABC's position is apparently that it does not permit criticism of any individual, even if that person is the head of a political party and even if the criticism involves substantial political issues of public import. This is an extraordinary position.”
Asked about its position, ENCA's head of news Patrick Conroy referred Daily Maverick to its statement on the matter: “We have viewed the DA advert and even consulted our legal team. We find it acceptable and part of the political discourse in a democratic South Africa. Voters will make up their own minds about the DA's message and vote accordingly.”
The SABC's decision to pull the advertisements comes amid news reports this weekend that SABC chairperson Ellen Tshabalala warned journalists their phones might be tapped because they are working in a national key point. Reports also emerged of instructions to limit coverage of issues that might negatively reflect on the government. In a report released last year, the Public Protector found “pathological corporate governance deficiencies” and a “dysfunctional” board at the SABC.
Wits Professor and political commentator Susan Booysen was hesitant to talk about the broader reports on the public broadcaster, but said, “There's probably electioneering from both sides.” Politics is always a factor at the SABC but it's going to be more evident during election time, she said, noting the SABC's behaviour isn't much different from past elections. Sadly, the public broadcaster “isn't a neutral conveyor of information and the DA knows it,” she added. So the party may have been trying to be provocative to highlight the SABC's bias. Booysen, however, was clear that the DA's statement on police killing people doesn't amount to provoking violence.
Right2Know campaigner Murray Hunter said the SABC's decision must be seen in the broader context. “It's not just the DA (who may actually be benefiting from the censorship) or the quality of the ad (which is up for debate) but it comes as a part of defensive and conservative actions from the SABC that limit the free flow of information – a number of smaller parties have also raised concerns that the SABC is marginalising their voices in the public debate.”
In a statement, Media Monitor Africa said the advert was likely to provoke a strong response from the ANC but it shouldn't have been pulled off air. The statement debunked the SABC's reasons for its decision before concluding: “The SABC should be encouraging robust debate, not seeking to limit it. We have seen too many reports in the media in the run-up to these elections where different political parties have complained about the SABC.” It continues, crucially, on how the SABC's actions will influence the public's view of the election. “We believe the decision not to broadcast the advert will fundamentally undermine the perceptions of fairness of the SABC and we call on them to reverse the decision in the interests of free and fair elections and robust debate.”
Marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk was also critical but said the SABC's decision didn’t come as a surprise. To his knowledge, it's the first time Icasa will have to deal with an issue of advertising and it might decide to ask the ASA to look at it. Adverts are usually pulled only after complaints are laid with ASA, he said. “In this case the SABC seem to have done it all on their own.” Moerdyk compared the situation to that under P.W. Botha, when the National Party leader didn't need to tell the public broadcaster what to do, they just did it. “There's no question in my mind,” he said, “that the SABC is acting as the mouthpiece of the ANC.” What worries Moerdyk is that the majority of the population relies on the public broadcaster for information (largely through radio) and while it appears to have taken a selective line in its editorial content, it's now denying advertisers the right to share information.
Icasa is expected to make a decision on the DA's complaint today (Monday), but Moerdyk isn't confident the “unprecedented” issue will be resolved soon. “I'm not holding my breath about Icasa acting as quickly as the DA would want them to act,” he said over the phone. DM
Photo: A frame grab from the DA advert.