South Africa

Politics, South Africa

SABC: Motsoeneng’s Manic Monday may alter the future of public broadcaster

SABC: Motsoeneng’s Manic Monday may alter the future of public broadcaster

As Communications Minister Faith Muthambi is summoned to ANC headquarters on Monday, the pummelling of the SABC continued over the weekend. With Icasa’s ruling also due, Monday is a crucial day in determining the future of the public broadcaster and South Africa’s access to information. By GREG NICOLSON.

The SABC has always faced waves of criticism, but they turned into a storm two weeks ago when Thandeka Gqubule, Foeta Krige and Suna Venter were suspended for challenging the public broadcaster’s policy on protests. The SABC should cover the Right2Know’s protests outside its Auckland Park headquarters, they argued. They were allegedly suspended for their stance against the policy not to cover violent protests, even though Right2Know were not violent. That led to the resignation of acting CEO Jimi Matthews and widespread condemnation from civil society, the media, unions and the ANC, who criticised not just the suspensions but the SABC’s failure to perform its constitutional role.

Two weeks after the suspensions were handed down, the SABC appears to have taken a step back from the blind faith it put in its decisions under COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, as the criticism reaches fever pitch and fresh allegations emerge.

According to trade union Solidarity, representing the three suspended workers, disciplinary hearings scheduled to begin on Monday have been postponed indefinitely. Solidarity on Sunday said the indefinite postponement was unacceptable and called for the disciplinary process to be scrapped. The union said it plans to approach the Constitutional Court this week to test the argument for banning coverage of protests on the SABC and in the interim Solidarity wants to go to the Labour Court to get an interdict stopping the disciplinary proceedings. Four other journalists are reported to be also facing disciplinary proceedings for speaking out about the SABC’s editorial policies and culture.

The SABC, and particularly its COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who is accused of having near-dictatorial control over the public broadcaster, face two key challenges on Monday.

In a surprise announcement last week, ANC communications subcommittee chair Jackson Mthembu called the SABC’s position on protests “censorship”, said senior management lacks the required skills, and announced the party had called Muthambi to a meeting on Monday at Luthuli House to explain herself. Muthambi is a key supporter of Motsoeneng and, despite consistent pressure she has remained in his corner. She has also defied Mthembu’s subcommittee in the past and despite the pressure from the ANC has been able to keep her ministerial post as she apparently continues to enjoy the support of the president.

Without the president taking action, there’s little the ANC can do beyond holding a meeting with the minister, but both Muthambi and the SABC could be undermined on Monday if a decision from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) goes against them. Media Monitoring Africa, supported by other groups, challenged the SABC’s policy not to air footage of violent protests, which the public broadcaster defended by saying it would deter copycats and present a more positive image of the country. The minister supported the move, which was announced in May. Media Monitoring Africa argued it goes against the Constitution and the law.

If the decision goes against the SABC, Motsoeneng, seen as both the instigator of the SABC’s latest controversial policies and the most staunch defender, would lose face. It could be fatal for his job, which he has managed to retain despite a scathing report from the public protector, multiple court losses challenging his appointment, and repeated public gaffes.

As pressure on the COO continues, the Sunday Times this weekend reported how Motsoeneng went against the advice of an SABC board to push through a R167-million contract to extend the Uzalo series, created by a production company owned by President Jacob Zuma’s daughter Gugu Zuma-Ncube.

In a joint statement on Friday, the Chief Albert Luthuli, Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy, Robert Sobukwe, Helen Suzman, Umlambo, FW De Klerk, Jakes Gerwel and Thabo Mbeki foundations noted their “deep concern” about the SABC. “In our constitutional framework, there is no justification for the public broadcaster to censor broadcasts unless with the expressed determination of the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa or the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa. To allow Mr Motsoeneng to forge ahead with the litany of his arbitrary decisions is to surrender our freedom!” they said.

The foundations noted the similarities with other government institutions where leadership failures and governance breaches occur and called for a judicial inquiry into the SABC’s adherence to the relevant laws.

The statement comes after senior SABC journalist Vuyo Mvoko described the complex challenges involved in currently working for the public broadcaster, following more scathing comments from the three suspended journalists and others who face disciplinary action for speaking out.

Over the weekend, the SA National Editors Forum gave its Nat Nakasa Award for courageous journalism to SABC journalists Mvoko, Gqubule, Krige, Venter, along with Lukhanyo Calata, Busi Ntuli, Jacques Steenkamp, and Krivani Pillay, who have all spoken out about the crisis at the public broadcaster.

The SABC faces legal challenges over its editorial policy and the appointment of its COO Motsoeneng. The Democratic Alliance has been taking the SABC to court and Icasa for years, while the Economic Freedom Fighters have been critical of the SABC’s allegedly biased political coverage.

Zwelinzima Vavi has been a leader in the latest criticism, but on Sunday a new critic emerged. The North West structures of unions looking to break away from Cosatu and form their own federation, under a process currently headed by Vavi, slammed the SABC, its treatment of workers, and the failure of the Communications Workers Union to stand up for them.

Even if the statement is from a grouping linked to the SABC’s harshest critics, it’s another sign that the tide is turning against the status quo at the public broadcaster. Monday will be crucial in determining its future. DM

Photo: Hlaudi Motsoeneng, chief operating officer of the SABC, holds the corporation’s first quarterly media briefing in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 28 January 2015. Picture: SAPA stringer


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