Opinionista William Bird 1 June 2016

We CAN report that there are questions and obfuscation where the SABC news should be

The last time I checked we seemed to have more than enough challenges to work on without anyone needing to find some more. Sadly the latest move by the SABC involving banning burning property has added, quite unnecessarily, to our challenges. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?! Luckily the solution is pretty simple, except the SABC seems dead set against the possibility of changing its mind which is why we have opted to go the route of a legal challenge to the Complaints Compliance Committee. But more of that later.

There are a number of reasons why the SABC’s decision is bad for journalism, how it will undermine media freedom, encourage self censorship and is a throw-back to apartheid style action. These have already been articulated by bodies such as SANEF and Cosatu. While accurate, these arguments allow for the debate to be set up in a binary and positional fashion – where you are either in one camp, supporting the idea, or in another condemning it. Not only does such a positional debate not help take us further, it also gives legitimacy to a decision that is flawed for a variety of other reasons – which if we unpack and interrogate can hopefully take us forward.

To be clear, in addition (in our view) to being illegal it is a really poor idea, for the following reasons: we don’t know what it is they are actually saying they have banned. Is it the event of the protest if violent? Is it the actual destruction of public property?

Perhaps more worryingly, we don’t know why they have done this or rather, what the problem is that they seek to address with such extreme action.

Even if we did know why and what, there is no evidence that the proposed solution will have the desired effect anyway.

There is no evidence that the decision followed due process within the existing structure of the SABC, which means we need to question how the decision was arrived at. Because it is so sweeping, it undermines any potentially valid arguments that do exist around the role the SABC and others could play in challenging violence and destruction of property.

Finally it is poor because it is like a man who cuts off his arm to take away attention from the snake that is biting his leg. Instead of us being able to work on issues of quality, building skills to report and understand community protests, we now have to devote resources to combating a self-created problem.

So let’s start with the confusion. The press release says:

The SABC would like to make an appeal to other South African broadcasters and the print media to stand in solidarity with the public broadcaster not to cover the violent protests that are on the rise and in turn destroying public institutions.”

This seems to be a pretty clear statement about not covering any violent protests. Not simply destruction of public property.

No, says Mr Motsoeneng. In an interview on 702 with Stephen Grootes, he said:

I need to explain exactly what we mean. What we mean is we are going to cover all protest, but where we are saying we are not gonna show those visuals”.

Okay. So is it the whole action or just those moments when there is destruction of public property? Or is something else or in addition to those elements:

“… in cases Stephen, you will realise, even our cameras, our journalists, they will tell you immediately when they arrived people marching peacefully when they see these cameras they throw stones, they burn properties. So we are saying in that case we shall not show those visuals, because people should not do that because they will be on television or on radio.”

These might seem small but they are critical distinctions, especially if you are one of the SABC employees who had to deal with the decision. Do you film? Don’t you film? What do you film? Even if we take it that the press release is wrong, it still isn’t clear for in the same interview, Mr Motsoeneng goes on to say how if the SABC (public property) was attacked and burning the SABC would show it.

“… example Stephen, remember SABC previously did burn, there were no journalists there were no cameras. I mean all people rush to the SABC even SABC we show SABC burning, we will do that. But we are not going to incite people to burn property as SABC.”

Clear as mud? Good.

Now that we know what we don’t know, perhaps the decision would make sense if only we knew why they were doing this. What is the wrong they seek to address? This too sadly is not clear, but we can surmise that it is to do with communities who destroy public property. To be clear, this is an action that normally should be condemned. We see in the press release that there is clearly some conflation of showing the violence with promoting it.

These actions are regrettable and viewed as regressive on the developments made after 22 years of South Africa’s democracy. Continuing to promote them might encourage other communities to do the same.”

This surely cannot be correct? Showing stories about crime, or corruption for example, usually serves to highlight how these actions undermine our democracy, how justice can be applied and people held accountable. Showing the Oscar Pistorius trial may sometimes have been sensationalist, but it didn’t suddenly result in an escalation of intimate femicide.

Another possible motive implied seems to suggest the reason for the banning was not to give publicity to such actions.

“… we will not assist these individuals to push their agenda that seeks media attention.”

While there may be some instances where people play up for the cameras, in which case we have to ask whether such stories are news, we know from Vuwani that the destruction of at least six schools took place before any journalists were present, and subsequent schools were often burnt overnight with few if any cameras to witness the destruction. On a more fundamental level, however, the idea that communities “will be encouraged to do the same” if they see them on TV is both patronising and offensive as it assumes no agency of people, or context or cause for other community protests.

We also know that there are a number of existing challenges we face that are equally if not more repugnant to our nation – gender-based violence, racism, poverty, crime, corruption. Surely the SABC should seek to address all of these too? So can it be that the problem is the destruction of public property and schools, and that they make it so urgent that such an extraordinary decision is taken? It is worth noting at this point the responses that have emerged that are in support of the decision, as they offer some options as to why.

The Minister of Communication is quoted as supporting the decision.

“… It is our belief that the decision by the public broadcaster not to show footage of people burning public institutions, such as schools and libraries, in any of its news bulletins, will go a long way to discourage attention-seeking anarchists,”

Her spokesperson was also quoted as saying:

“… one of the SABC’s mandates is to promote nation building and social cohesion and as a department we believe that the decision by the SABC not to show these images was taken. In the spirit of promoting social cohesion and fostering nation building”

Quite how not showing such acts contributes to building cohesion, as opposed to simple denial, is not at all clear.

Meanwhile the ANC has said:

What SABC has done in our view, which we welcome, is to open space to discuss whether it is true that footage [of people destroying property] … has an influence on other people who are Un happy. That we must debate.”

And, to top it off, we have the SACP saying they commend the SABC for taking a strong stand against the destruction of public property. An unusual response. As to why the SACP should be looking to the SABC specifically to be taking a strong stand against destruction of public property as opposed to, say, just about any other government department, including that of the SACP’s own Secretary-General in the Department of Higher Education, is not clear. So, is the problem that people are not taking a stand? Is it that the SABC is not doing enough nation building and promotion of social cohesion? Or is it a response to increasing violence and destruction of public property? It could be one or all of these. We don’t know.

As members of the public we don’t know what or why, but perhaps the powers that be do, so let us imagine if the decision has a what” and a why”. We need therefore to consider whether it is the best tool to achieve those goals. Is there any evidence that showing the destruction of public property encourages more destruction of public property? It might be useful to consider at this moment the focus on public property, for it has specifically been drawn out. On some level it may matter a great deal more if public property is destroyed because it is the public that paid for it. So if a community burned down a private school or destroyed private property that would be allowed to be shown, one element of the suggested solution must be the assumption that there is a difference in audiences seeing public versus private property being destroyed and that somehow not showing the one and showing the other will impact on communities. I’m open to being proven wrong, but the SABC has not presented any evidence that this solution will have any positive impact, let alone the desired impact of possibly reducing destruction of public property.

One element that is clear, as reflected by the attention given by responses by the minister of communication, the ANC and SACP is that this is a significant decision. In the announcement, all media were called on to support the decision. The question arises therefore as to the process taken to reach such a critical decision? The question is all the more pertinent given that the decision is clearly a limitation on freedom of expression. In this context, given the mandate of the SABC, any decision that would limit overtly freedom of expression must be subjected to significant scrutiny (our Constitution has a great limitations clause for easy reference, see section 36).

Accordingly, it could not surely be the work of only a handful of individuals? The decision has impacted on the editorial policies of the SABC. This is no small achievement given that it has taken the SABC over seven years to revise them, and the most recent ones have not followed due process. Surely, research was conducted, committees with news professionals met to discuss issues of proportionality, necessity, and develop possible alternatives. Surely these issues must have been put to the SABC board? Again, we simply don’t know, and perhaps the absence of evidence is evidence enough that due process was not followed. If it was it would go some way in helping to clarify the what”, why” and desired outcome.

What we are presented with is a sweeping decision that undermines any possible legitimacy or legitimate concern it sought to address. Like a racist who goes on to chat about understanding race relations, we simply don’t believe them. There are nuanced and important arguments to be had and made about how and what role all media, especially the public broadcaster, can play in helping to combat violence. Similarly there are vital debates to be had about how our media covers protests. Sadly instead of opening up these debates the blanket decision has made them very difficult to have and undermined the credibility of the SABC, especially, in taking positions on them.

And so we are left with parties and groups saying the decision is designed to back the ANC, that it serves the aims of our president, and can anybody honestly claim they will believe any refutation of the arguments, whether valid or not? The next time a protest is covered on SABC will you believe that you are getting the full story? Will you believe the next one in the lineup?

So what is to be done? As noted earlier, the SABC has said it will not change its mind. We see little option but to go the legal route. As a result, MMA, SOS and FXI have submitted papers to challenge the decision. It is a sad day that we have to resort to legal action to protect the credibility of our public broadcaster, but it is an essential action. DM

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