DAYS OF ZONDO

Hlaudi Motsoeneng tried to bar coverage of EFF ahead of 2014 elections

By Rebecca Davis 5 September 2019
Caption
Hlaudi Motsoeneng, chief operating officer of the SABC, holds the corporation's first quarterly media briefing in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 28 January 2015. The large amount of coverage President Jacob Zuma receives is based on the fact he is the president of the country, Motsoeneng told reporters. "He's getting more time because he is the president of the country. We always do that, because he is running the country... When the president talks, everything he does affects all of us...If you want to be president tomorrow, we will do the same thing for you," Motsoeneng said. Picture: SAPA stringer

With the focus of the Zondo Commission on the SABC this week, the spectre of former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng has cast a long shadow over proceedings. Former SABC producer Foeta Krige told the inquiry how Motsoeneng attempted to censor coverage of the EFF in 2014, two years before his ban on broadcasting protests.

On 5 February 2014, SABC radio producer Foeta Krige received an unusual visit at work from the acting head of radio news, Sebolelo Ditlhakanyane.

She informed me that we could not report on any of the activities of the EFF at that stage,” Krige told the Zondo Commission.

It was immediately apparent that the directive had come from “the 27th floor” of the SABC – acting COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Krige said this was the first occasion on which Motsoeneng would attempt to interfere so drastically in the editorial decisions of the SABC newsroom. Motsoeneng did not succeed: Krige says that he ignored the instruction and featured the EFF on a midday radio show that same day as planned, while the SABC ended up having to issue a statement denying that any policy to bar EFF coverage existed.

It was a little over two years later when Motsoeneng would issue one of his most notorious directives, via a statement to the media at large, announcing that the SABC would no longer cover violent protests.

When Krige objected, he was summoned to a meeting with Motsoeneng and other SABC executives, including acting head of news Jimi Mathews.

Motsoeneng said that the broadcaster was “cleaning up”, and announced: “This is a new SABC. You must adapt or find a job somewhere else.”

Krige said that he asked Motsoeneng if journalists could be given access to the research used to make the decision to ban protest coverage, which was ostensibly undertaken on the basis of evidence that media attention can fuel violent protest action.

Motsoeneng said: ‘I don’t believe in research’,” Krige told the inquiry.

The acting COO also informed him that editorial policy had now changed to make Motsoeneng the de facto head of news.

In line with Motsoeneng’s new involvement in news, he subsequently ran a workshop for SABC journalists in which they were instructed not to focus on “negative” stories. In other countries, Motsoeneng suggested, journalists took more care to show the positive side of national life.

Krige said that Motsoeneng told journalists: “Go to America – there is poverty, they do not show it. They do not show when their soldiers die.”

In the same workshop, Motsoeneng also announced that the notion of “news” had been removed from the SABC’s editorial policy and replaced with “content”.

He further instructed journalists to give then-president Jacob Zuma more air time and respect, arguing that Zuma could not be treated like any other ANC politician.

Judge Raymond Zondo asked Krige if any of the journalists in attendance at the workshop had voiced opposition to these new policies.

We were so used to what we called ‘Hlaudi-speak’ at that stage, we thought he was just babbling on,” Krige replied.

But Krige would become one of seven other journalists – the so-called “SABC 8” – to speak out in protest against Motsoeneng’s editorial interference, and be summarily dismissed. The Labour Court would subsequently order their immediate reinstatement.

Motsoeneng was also a prominent figure in the testimony heard by the inquiry earlier on Wednesday from former CEO Lulama Mokhobo.

Mokhobo told the Zondo Commission that a week after her appointment in 2012, Motsoeneng told her she had to accompany him on a secret mission – “very hush-hush”.

Recounted Mokhobo: “We arrived at this massive house, and I saw on the wall ‘Sahara Computers’. [Motsoeneng] said we are here because these people want to congratulate me.”

Mokhobo’s cellphone was taken from her and its battery removed. She was then led into a dining room – where it emerged that the people who wanted to see her were Ajay and Atul Gupta, Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane, and the son of Ace Magashule, whose name Mokhobo said she could not recall.

The gathered men told Mokhobo that “they were interested in creating a news channel and they would hope I would allow or enable them to get access to a channel”.

Mokhobo left the meeting confused, but rationalised it on the grounds that “lobbying” of this nature often took place.

This sounds very strange to me,” Judge Zondo interjected.

He was referring less to the content of the meeting with the Guptas, and more to Mokhobo’s willingness to be swept off by Motsoeneng to an unknown destination in the middle of a work day.

[Motsoeneng] was very persuasive,” Mokhobo said.

Hlaudi was such a trusted member of the SABC executive. He was very well-loved.”

Later, she would express a similar sentiment to explain how Motsoeneng’s salary ended up jumping from R1.5-million to R2.4-million in the course of 2013. This was a salary increase that Mokhobo approved, and for which she was harshly criticised by former public protector Thuli Madonsela in a February 2014 report on the SABC.

When I arrived at SABC there was an outpouring of adoration for Mr Motsoeneng,” Mokhobo said, with the consensus among other executives and the SABC board being that Motsoeneng was “doing an amazing job and not being paid enough”.

Under questioning from inquiry evidence leader Thandi Norman, Mokhobo insisted that Madonsela had “completely misunderstood” the Motsoeneng salary increase.

Because Motsoeneng was only acting as COO, his salary prior to the increase – and even afterwards – was “nowhere near” what a permanent COO would have been paid, Mokhobo said. She argued that Motsoeneng’s salary was increased in line with an annual salary review process in which he was identified as being “underpaid” and his salary increased to “bring him on par”.

But Mokhobo also made clear to the inquiry that she was no fan of Motsoeneng’s.

I locked horns many times with Mr Motsoeneng,” she said. “He undermined my authority many times.”

What led to Mokhobo resigning from the SABC, effective in early 2015, was her constant clashes with Motsoeneng and SABC board chair Ellen Tshabalala because “I was refusing to do things which were not according to policy”.

Mokhobo says a particular point of conflict with Tshabalala was the issue of the SABC’s approach to digital migration. Tshabalala backed MultiChoice’s campaign to change the SABC’s digital migration plan; Mokhobo and former communications minister Yunus Carrim took the opposite view.

This disagreement, says Mokhobo, led to a “level of desperation” from Tshabalala for Mokhobo to leave her position.

Although Mokhobo was at pains to paint her tenure as CEO as constantly motivated by the desire to do the right thing, she had earlier come in for a grilling on the issue of the Guptas’ The New Age breakfast events.

These events were hosted twice monthly in collaboration with the Guptas’ media wing, and broadcast live on SABC2. It is Mokhobo’s signature which appears on the contract for the breakfast events.

Mokhobo told the inquiry that the arrangements for the TNA breakfast events were in place before she arrived at the SABC, and that she was keen to formalise it into a contract.

The way the breakfasts were presented to her made them seem like a no-brainer: TNA would provide venues, invite high-profile guests, and provide all the requirements the SABC would need in order to be able to broadcast the show. The events were to be “apolitical” and a way of “bringing government to the people”.

It appeared to be “something which made sense for the public good”, Mokhobo said.

During her tenure, she noticed that the number of the events was steadily increasing. Mokhobo said she was told that the news department needed the content, and that more and more government leaders and SoE heads wanted to use the platform.

At no stage in my tenure was I made aware that TNA was, in fact, charging rather handsome fees from the various SoEs,” Mokhobo said.

She claimed it was also only through Zondo Commission investigators that she discovered that the broadcasts had, in fact, cost the SABC over R20-million.

Mokhobo also told the inquiry she had no idea that the SABC was paying the Guptas for daily deliveries of TNA to the tune of almost R1-million.

The former CEO said that this discovery “shocked” her, as she had been under the impression that the newspapers were made available free to the SABC as part of a “barter deal”.

Before she concluded her testimony, Mokhobo almost pleaded with the inquiry to accept that she had been a force for good for the broadcaster.

Under my leadership, the SABC finances became extremely healthy,” she claimed.

I had ensured that the advertising industry rebuilt their belief in the SABC. I made sure all the leaking taps were closed.” DM

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