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No big debate: the SABC, censorship, and more censorship on Media Freedom Day

Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly from @jbjreid and writes about media policy debates and the state of media freedom in South Africa. Julie is the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM), and an active member of the Right2Know campaign. She is involved in various media policy research projects, has published research in the field of media studies and edited a book on South African visual culture.

On Wednesday 17 October, two days before South Africans were due to commemorate National Media Freedom Day, the SABC pulled the popular current affairs talk show The Big Debate off air, mere hours before the first episode of the second season was due to be broadcast on SABC2. At first the SABC provided no reasons for this cancellation to the producers of The Big Debate, and later dubiously stated that it was due to an “editorial oversight”. This is but the latest episode in an ongoing saga that tells the tale of blatant political censorship at our public broadcaster.

The SABC’s canning of The Big Debate resulted in a storm of protest on social media, and statements of disgust from civil society including the Right2Know Campaign. Why is it so important that The Big Debate not be censored? If you haven’t yet watched an episode of the show, I’d highly recommend that you do – you can find the episodes of the first season on YouTube.

I particularly like the one that deals with the topic ‘Are the police out of control?’. In a post-Marikana context, the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa gets a roasting from fellow panelists and members of the audience. The minister does an admirable job of keeping calm whilst facing some tough questions, so much so that you almost feel sorry for him. But they are important questions, and as the man-in-charge he is responsible for answering them. Ministers shouldn’t ever expect a free ride in the accountability stakes, and when persons within the portfolio they are responsible for routinely kill people, even less so.

Regarding The Big Debate: where else in the South African media are ministers held this directly accountable? In a town-hall type format, presenter Siki Mgabadeli moderates discussants as they debate issues of national importance. Respectably the show consistently includes discussants from various sides of each selected topic, meaning that government ministers and officials are pitted against researchers, activists, representatives from civil society and members of grassroots communities. This format is important first, because it provides a balance of opinion and second, because those in positions of power inevitably are required to account to citizens directly, face-to-face, on the impact of the decisions that they have made on the ordinary South African’s life.

It is a good show. But the SABC canned it. The reasons given by the SABC for the canning (let’s call it banning) are ludicrous. The Mail & Guardian reported that the SABC’s Kaizer Kganyago said, “The Big Debate, which is a current affairs programme, was incorrectly commissioned by SABC2 and in doing so, the editorial oversight, which is the responsibility of the newsroom, was compromised. This is all we are prepared to say about the matter”. Whether or not this is a valid justification is seriously debatable. But, let us assume that even if it is against the SABC’s editorial policy to outsource the production of current affairs programming, this puts the SABC in a very bad light. Bear in mind that an entire first season of 10 episodes of The Big Debate has already screened on SABC2. Are we to assume that the public broadcaster is incapable of following its own policies? How is it that this supposed error was only picked up after screening 10 episodes? And if this is the case then why has the SABC in the past screened other locally and independently produced current affairs programmes?

In any case, after conducting a scan of both the SABC’s editorial code and its procedures document for the procurement of local television programmes I could not find anything that would limit the SABC from screening a show like The Big Debate. Sure, documents like these can vary in interpretation. But this matter is about more than following a stoic policy document. First, if the SABC’s policy prevents shows like The Big Debate from being broadcast on the national public service broadcaster, then it’s a bad policy which deserves to be ignored. Full stop.

The generally accepted assumption within government, the political elite, civil society and the media industry alike is that the South African media landscape is currently lacking in diversity – but this is especially so with regard to those media types that are most widely available to the largest audience, which includes the offering of the SABC. The matter of diversity is taken so seriously that the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications hosted a serious of indaba’s on it, and the print media industry set up its own task team, the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team, to address the issue of diversity. As the SABC flails around in perpetual financial doldrums, it’s difficult for the public broadcaster to produce a diverse plethora of quality local programming.

It’s much cheaper to buy content in mass bundles of inexpensive American imports than it is to film locally: although this is more cost effective it does nothing to encourage local content production or increase diversity meaningfully. Whatever the case, it’s not as if the SABC has got warehouses full of locally produced high quality television content just waiting to be put on air – good, well-produced, high quality locally produced programming is difficult for the public broadcaster to come by.

Independent local content producers can play a role in filling that gap. And the best is, they often don’t cost the taxpayer anything. The Big Debate is funded by the Foundation for Human Rights, not by the SABC and therefore not by taxpayers. So it’s a win-win equation: South African audiences get to watch high quality programming, at no cost, which also takes the SABC’s diversity factor up a notch.

And as the Right2Know Campaign has pointed out, this affair comes at a time when the SABC is currently conducting “a nationwide roadshow to ensure public participation in the review of editorial policies. The decision flies in the face of the current and draft policies which both commit the public broadcaster to reflect the diverse range of South African attitudes and opinions. At recent public appearances the SABC GCEO Lulama Mokhobo held up The Big Debate as the best example of this diversity”.

On speaking to Siki Mgabadeli she described to me in detail the process that was followed by the producers of The Big Debate in their engagements with the SABC on the nature and content of the show. This involved a number of meetings with commissioning editors and the like from the SABC. She said, “From the very beginning Ben (Cashdan) was told that the show was in line with the editorial policy. And if it wasn’t, then why did they go ahead and commission a second season? We said, if SABC news people want to get involved with our show, we don’t have a problem with that. The commissioning editors of the SABC told us that we had to be in line with the SABC editorial policies. We had no problem with that. They had no problem with the topics we had chosen for season two. And after watching each show before they were to air in season one, they said that they were in line with the editorial policies. You can’t turn around a week before the show is to go on air, and say that it’s not in line with policy. The SABC commissioning editor even came to the shooting of the first two episodes (of season two) and he had no problems”.

Mgabadeli and Cashdan also told me that the show, despite its hard-hitting character, had received praise from a number of government ministers over the course of the first season. The response from government participants to the show seemed overwhelmingly positive. Why then this act of apparent censorship? And why now? The orders to cancel The Big Debate seem to have emanated directly from acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng – lately most (in)famous for his insistence that the SABC should produce a minimum of 70% ‘good news’ or sunshine journalism. One hopes that this is not a case of Mr Sunshine behaving as a self-appointed protector of government ministers or members of the political elite, shielding them from potentially damaging coverage ahead of next year’s elections. One seriously hopes that the big-boss of the national public broadcaster does not take his cue from Luthuli house. One hopes.

Sadly, the SABC has a bad history of censorship since the advent of democracy. The Big Debate is only the most recent casualty, but it’s not the first time this show’s producer, Ben Cashdan, has had his programming pulled at the last minute. In 2006 Cashdan co-produced (with Redi Tlhabi) a documentary about former president Thabo Mbeki: apparently someone in government did not approve of its content and the SABC pulled the documentary. The SABC banned coverage of the Manto Tshabalala-Msimang saga, it prevented the screening of a Special Assignment broadcast on Jonathan Shapiro and political satire, it omitted all coverage of Julius Malema’s response to the Marikana massacre, and prescribed the terminology its journalists could use when reporting on Nkandlagate. The SABC has also gotten into the rather irritating habit of inviting critical speakers to appear on television or radio broadcasts, only to un-invite them hours or minutes before going on air, seemingly because when bosses get wind of who is due to be interviewed they deliver orders down the line of authority to spontaneously ban persons who are likely to express overly critical opinions on air (a recent example is Wasp spokesperson Liv Shange, but she is not alone). And who can forget that infamous Blacklist?

The real worry is that these are only the instances of censorship at the SABC that we know about. My concern is that they are the tip of an iceberg and that there are a great many more instances of censorship that don’t make it into the press. It is intensely difficult to try to investigate the current extent of political censorship at the SABC because those who are censored, or intimidated into practising self-censorship, are not willing to speak up about it. In an industry that is small, where employment is hard to come by, journalists who whistle-blow in this way are likely to lose their jobs. Even if they blow the whistle as an anonymous source, when they provide details about which particular story they were working on when they experienced some form of censorship it would be very easy for media bosses to identify them owing to the nature of the details leaked to the press.

Last week a journalist who previously worked on current affairs and news shows which were produced for the SABC and eNews spoke to me on the conditions of anonyminity and that I didn’t reveal too much about the particular stories which got the journalist into trouble with some very powerful people. Let’s call this journo Bob*. Bob doesn’t currently work at the SABC, nor any of the other big media outlets in SA, but is now a multimedia freelance journalist.

But the media industry in South Africa is a small tight-knit and fairly closed community. Bob is young and has a long career ahead of him: it would be tricky for him to earn a reputation for ratting on media outlets at this stage for fear of what it might mean for his career later on. But Bob certainly dropped a few bombshells on me during our interview.

Bob was at pains to emphasise that what has happened now to The Big Debate is nothing new. According to Bob there were serious infringements on editorial independence at the SABC during the Mbeki administration. Many of Bob’s colleagues experienced varying forms of censorship. Bob described this as a political trickle-down effect that impacted content at the public broadcaster, particularly around the topics Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism and xenophobia. The source of the trickle in this ‘trickle-down’ effect seemed to stem directly from ‘the top’ and in particular the presidency and department of health. Other bombshells followed.

Amongst them was an incident in which Bob was working on a story about a very significant and expensive national event. Bombshell: Bob was threatened for working on the story. This in itself is outrageous. The nature of the story was not particularly original: a significant national event happens, and the media do some analysis on the cost of the event and what the country stands to benefit from it. That is pretty run-of-the-mill journalism. Bob was doing his job, for which he should not have been threatened. A few days later all production on the particular show that Bob had been working on was stopped, and the story was never aired.

Another bombshell: it is not necessarily the media bosses themselves, the Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s of the industry, who actively silence journalists. This is sometimes performed by politicians or public officials themselves, who contact journalists directly to intimidate them into silence. Bob related a tale about the night he received a threatening and disturbing phone-call at 18:00 from a high-ranking official who was directly involved with a national project (ie. not a media boss). Bob told me that the phone call was so threatening that it was a frightening experience. The individual who phoned Bob accused him of being an unpatriotic South African for investigating the repercussions of a national event.

When journalists ask questions about the over R200 million spent on JZ’s Nkandla posse, or why the police opened fire on striking miners at Marikana, or why hospitals in the Eastern Cape are in a state of disrepair, or why school children in Limpopo didn’t receive their textbooks this year, or what on earth went on behind closed doors during the infamous Arms Deal, they ARE being patriotic. Putting the hard and uncomfortable questions to those in the centres of power, often at personal cost, is one of the most patriotic things one can do. Journalists who do this in order to initiate national conversations about the things that we are getting wrong as a country, so that we can begin discussions about how to do things better, work in the endless pursuit of a greater social justice. Call this a romanticised view, call it naive, call it patriotic, or whatever you like. But it is not within the best interest of the country for this important work to be stopped, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the ‘important’ people.

One day after the SABC canned The Big Debate, members of parliament hosted a commemorative celebration of National Media Freedom Day in parliament on Friday 18 October. I cannot think of anything more distasteful. If our parliamentarians, the lot of them, had any gumption or understanding of media ethics, and if they really had a feeling for the acute blight in the history of free expression encompassed in the memory of Black Wednesday, they would have cancelled the celebration out of protest at the SABC’s canning of The Big Debate. But wait, oh dear… the event was hosted in partnership with the SABC.

The Right2Know campaign and friends will be protesting outside the SABC in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, on Thursday 24 October from 12:00-14:00 to voice outrage at the ever increasing lack of editorial independence at the public broadcaster and due to the banning of The Big Debate show. DM

*not the journalist’s real name.

Dr Julie Reid is based at the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and specialises in media studies.


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