Media, Politics

UPDATED: Editors block Parliament’s secret SABC meeting – for now

By Andy Rice 24 August 2010

Parliament's communications portfolio committee says it was simply trying to give SABC board members an opportunity to really speak their minds. Including on allegations of interference by President Jacob Zuma, perhaps. Editors say secrecy is not in the interests of the public. This time the editors won, though not before the SABC's chairman got to declare war on his board.

In a pretty extraordinary morning, the media – by way of the courts – prevented Parliament from holding an in-camera meeting with the board of the SABC, where some extraordinary things were about to be said.

Parliament’s communications portfolio committee had summoned the entire board to appear before it and explain its current state, and had planned a two-stage meeting: The first part behind closed doors, so that “full and frank” discussions could be held, and a second part open to the public. Where, one can only presume, a sanitised version of those discussions would have been presented.

Given what was going to be said, it’s clear why the committee thought discretion necessary.

According to Beeld, the SABC board was going to blame its chairman, Ben Ngubane, and group head Solly Mokoetle for most, if not all, of the broadcaster’s troubles. The report obtained by the paper paints a picture of Mokoetle running amok with no regard for corporate governance, while Ngubane sits back and does nothing.

And it wasn’t going to stop there. Apparently Ngubane, in unilaterally appointing Phil Molefe as the SABC’s head of news, told the board that he was acting on direct orders from President Jacob Zuma.

But the closed-door plan met some stiff resistance. On Monday the Democratic Alliance called for transparency to come first, though Cope apparently supported the two-stage plan. On Monday morning several members of the Press Gallery Association staged a sit-in, refusing to leave the corridor outside the meeting venue after being prevented from entering.

That did not prevent Ngubane from completing his presentation to the committee though. SABC board members, who were present, but asked not to be named, said Ngubane asked for an inquiry into the actions of the board, saying it had interfered in its running of the broadcaster. The board, for its part, insisted that both Ngubane and Mokoetle had exceeded their powers.

Interestingly, it seems Parliamentary communications officials were in the room for Ngubane’s (in-camera) presentation, and that the meeting went ahead even though the committee had been informed that the South African National Editor’s Forum intended to obtain a court interdict halting it. After Ngubane’s presentation, the meeting was halted, though it is not clear whether the interdict had actually been served. A member of the committee confirmed it was obtaining legal opinion

That legal opinion could be complicated. The courts are limited in how deeply they can interfere in the running of Parliament, and if the decision to hold a secret meeting had been taken following the correct procedure, the interdict may not stand up, particularly when the principle of separation of powers is taken into consideration. On the other hand, Parliament has an obligation to be transparent in its affairs, perhaps all the more so when dealing with a state institution like the SABC.

UPDATE:

Communications portfolio committee chair Ismail Vadi has confirmed that the SABC hearings have been indefinitely postponed, and that the matter now rests with the speaker. The committee believes it is up to the speaker to challenge the interim interdict obtained by Sanef, or order that the meeting should be held in public.

Vadi also confirmed that the SABC board had not requested secrecy for its own protection, but that the committee had decided to conduct in-camera hearings to protect the privacy of those who may be subject to disciplinary action.

“We absolutely believe in the freedom of speech, in the freedom of the media,” Vadi said. “However, we had to take this decision to protect certain officials and the corporation’s rights.”

That closely echoes statements by a range of ANC officials in recent media freedom debates. The intention of the ANC’s proposed media appeals tribunal, these officials said, is partially to protect the privacy of individuals from an invasive and unaccountable media.

Not everyone agrees that SABC officials should be protected at the expense of the public, of course. DA MP Lindiwe Mazibuko said her party “saw no reason why this whole issue could not continue today in an open and public meeting,” she told assembled reporters.

Though there seems to be universal agreement that the shambles at the SABC is urgent business, the portfolio committee will now continue to deliberate on legislation around the Post Bank instead.

By Phillip de Wet

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