As civic society celebrated a hard-won court ruling that proved the SABC and Snuki Zikalala were nothing more than government puppets under the rule of Thabo Mbeki, communications regulator Icasa accepted the court ruling and said it would convene a new panel to conduct a hearing into political interference at the SABC.
But the song remains much the same at the SABC, which predictably pointed fingers at other media saying they were misrepresenting the news, while its spokesman Kaizer Kganyago played the “no comment” game.
“This court matter is between the Freedom of Expression Institute and Icasa so we at the SABC were not party to this court case,” said Kganyago, the same man interviewed by John Perlman five years ago and who denied the SABC blacklisting scandal at the heart of the court ruling. Perlman confronted Kganyago about the SABC blacklisting controversy in 2006 and Kganyago said on air that there was no policy to blacklist disloyal political commentators. Perlman made SA media history, contradicting Kganyago on air by saying the blacklist was in place on SABC instruction. Perlman is now long gone from the SABC.
Kganyago is still in his job. This week he was still the ever-efficient spin doctor, but this time side stepping questions on political interference at the SABC. “Our side of the story was not presented in this court case, therefore, it would not be proper for the SABC to comment at the moment because it will depend on what Icasa will want to do. If Icasa wants to do anything they will call us into a formal hearing where we can present our side of the story. Therefore, it will be improper for us to comment on this issue. Our lawyers will then look at the judgment and advise us what to do. And that is our position at the moment.”
Kganyago complained that the media had misunderstood the ruling. He said the media mistakenly thought the judgment was against the SABC when it was against Icasa. He said the media didn’t understand the SABC was not involved in the court ruling at all. When pressed on the issue of political interference at the SABC, Kganyago said: “The fact that the SABC was accused of manipulation and lying is not a new thing. You must remember this is based on something that happened years ago. We made our position known and if I remember at the time it was that we do not have a policy to exclude any commentators. Unless we are given an opportunity to present at a formal hearing, we can’t now comment to the public on something that we are not party to.”
Following the hearing, Icasa was huddled behind closed doors and declined to offer direct comment except to say it would only issue a written statement on the matter. The statement indicated Icasa accepted the judgment, but tried to put an arm’s length between the complaints and compliance committee, which originally washed its hands of the FXI’s complaint and ultimately led to the court showdown.
Icasa’s statement reads: “In line with the High Court judgment, the Authority will refer the matter to the Complaints and Compliance Committee to probe the matter afresh. The CCC will then convene a new panel to conduct the hearing. The Authority would like to point out that the decision that the High Court reviewed/overturned was made by the Complaints and Compliance Committee (CCC), not by Icasa’s Council. The CCC is an independent committee of Council or a Tribunal, which draws its panel from esteemed legal professionals, and it is chaired by a Judge of the High Court. The CCC conducts its business independently, and arrives at its decisions independently.”
Icasa should, of course, know by now that a statement isn’t going to fool anyone about the regulator’s deeply ingrained incompetency. “This really shows Icasa up for the flaky, ineffectual institution it is,” said Jane Duncan, who wrote the original complaint against the SABC that was taken to Icasa. The former head of FXI, Duncan is now the Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.
“The court’s observation that Icasa not only needs to look at the final product, but also needs to look at the process that led up to the final product is extremely important because what we have been unable to do up to this point is be successful in laying complaints about views that haven’t been broadcast. What Icasa has insisted on is receiving complaints about views that have been broadcast. This means internal censorship is practically impossible to talk about. The ruling now opens the door to internal censorship being dealt with as a violation of the broadcasting code and that is hugely significant. It means that when voices are suppressed inside any broadcaster the complaints and compliance committee is duty bound to investigate and make rulings on that internal censorship. This should hopefully stem this wide-scale abuse of the public broadcaster. It underlines the fact that something serious needs to be done about Icasa to bolster its role as a public watchdog because clearly it has failed in that role. The ruling shows Icasa failed the nation.”
William Bird of democracy watchdog group Media Monitoring Africa concurs. “What the ruling speaks to most embarrassingly is Icasa’s failure adequately to monitor the SABC. We have monitored and noted that Icasa’s role as an independent regulator has diminished. Icasa has failed in its crucial oversight role of the SABC and the court ruling is hard-core evidence of this failure. Everyone looks at the SABC and says it is a disaster, and it is not just because the board is in crisis, it is not just because of self-censorship, it is not just because of Parliament, it is also because of the role of Icasa. Had Icasa played its role sufficiently as a regulator, the SABC wouldn’t have been allowed to get into the position in which it finds itself today. As much as it’s bad news for the SABC, if I was Icasa, I would be hiding under my desk in shame and embarrassment.”
Jayshree Pather, a programme co-ordinator at the FXI, agrees and says Icasa can no longer have a “hands-off” approach to the SABC. “Icasa has a responsibility to ensure the SABC meets its mandate as a public broadcaster, and that it is free from political and commercial interference. The high court ruling confirms the critical role Icasa plays in this as a regulator and the importance of the SABC in complying with its licence conditions, which stipulate that there must be journalistic integrity, that the SABC must be fair and unbiased, employ impartial reporting and that there must be no political interference. It says that the SABC must be bound by its licence and Icasa must make sure the SABC does this.”
Mail & Guardian chairman Trevor Ncube is one of the political commentators blacklisted during Zikalala’s term of office at the SABC. “During Zikilala’s reign I had first-hand knowledge that I was banned. When I was at Harare airport I was approached by a very senior SABC person who told me he had been instructed not to put me on air. That was long before this whole scandal broke and he wanted me to know that was the case. The practice where an individual who doesn’t have good intentions controls what the public broadcaster puts on air is very worrying and damages the health of public discourse and the role the public broadcaster plays. One realises that right now there isn’t the appetite to continue another investigation and to get to the bottom of this, but lessons must be learnt.”
A good reason why the lesson must be learnt is the controversial installation of Phil Molefe as news head at SABC and his recent use of the public broadcaster as a personal mouthpiece for businessman Robert Gumede. Gumede used the broadcaster to attack the Mail & Guardian which had published a number of investigative stories on the ANC benefactor. “The most important lesson to be learnt is to appoint people to the SABC board who are independent-minded and who don’t serve the ruling party or the government of the day, but serve the public. The SABC belongs to the taxpayer and to the public. It belongs to people that support the ANC, support Cope, support the DA – and so it must be balanced, objective and impartial at all times,” said Ncube.
The big question is what changes this ruling will bring to Icasa and the SABC – if any. Will Icasa stop being an indifferent government lackey and represent the public interest instead of party political interests? Clearly the SABC is still playing the same game and requires a strong regulator to root out the weeds of political interference. With local elections coming up, let’s see if Icasa is capable of doing its job. One wouldn’t bet on it though. DM
Read more: SABC slams media ‘misrepresentation’ of FXI-ICASA ruling by Issa Sikiti da Silva on BizCommunity, Perlman vindicated as judge rules SABC manipulated news by Glenda Neville in The Media, Little stomach for another probe into SABC by Chantelle Benjamin in Business Day, Stunning: SA Court ruling reveals SABC cranked propaganda for Mugabe in The Zimbabwe Mail, How Snuki Zikalaka manipulated the news by Judge CJ Claassen, South Gauteng High Court on PoliticsWeb.
Photo of Snuki Zikalala by Sally Shorkend for Empire Magazine.
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