Opinionista William Bird 21 June 2016

See No Evil: The SABC ignores the news happening on its own doorstep

The decision a few weeks ago to ban coverage of public protests has been in force for a few weeks now and already its impact is being felt.

The SABC is in crisis yet again. No, I’m not talking about dropping The Bold & the Beautiful, although it would appear the 80% local content rule is set to be made up of repeats and local reality programming, not that that isn’t better than Bold, but just because something is local doesn’t mean it is any better in terms of quality, but that debate is for another day.

The crisis I am referring to now is a crisis of truly grave proportions. The decision a few weeks ago to ban coverage of public protests has been in force for a few weeks now and already its impact is being felt. I wrote about the insanity and offensiveness of the decision here. Together with our partners, the SOS Support Broadcasting Coalition and the Freedom of Expression institute, we have submitted a complaint to Icasa’s Complaints and Compliance Committee. We have also as a result seen protests by our other civil society partners including the Right2Know taking place around the SABC. These are all important actions.

We are confident of our arguments, of how the decision constitutes clear censorship. Some have argued against it, citing issues from there being too much violence on TV to asking us to think about about how we cover violence. These are legitimate questions but are also red herrings, where the decision is not to debate or discuss or allow for nuance but simply to censor. Like the apartheid censors of old, the decision as vague and sweeping as it is doesn’t allow for discussion but a Verwoerdian approach that encourages journalists to censor first and think later. It is censorship on a slippery slope of Mount Everest proportions.

As I write this, violence in Tshwane is reportedly getting worse. Buses have been burnt, property (private and public) has or is being destroyed, including clinics. Yet until the 23:00 news no mention of this was made on the SABC’s 24 hour news channel. At 23:00 there was an interview with the Mayor of Tshwane (with no visuals, surprise surprise) and no context or explanation. Essentially leaving the viewer none the wiser as to why and what is going on. I’m sure there are some at the SABC who are reporting it. There are after all 18 services at the SABC and despite the iron-fisted techniques some still fight to do their job. But when your flagship service doesn’t even mention what’s going on, we have a massive problem.

If ever we needed a clear example of how the decision to ban public protests is censorship, it is the Tshwane unrest. To be clear, there don’t seem to be any reports that suggest the violence started as a result of media being present as has been repeatedly asserted by the SABC in seeking to justify their ban. In fact, it is continuing despite them not showing it and seeking to deny it. By only interviewing the mayor the reporting is at best incomplete and at worst biased and a deliberate effort to ignore the causes.

The warning signs are clear: the very basic tenets of reporting are being deliberately undermined. We need to see these efforts for what they are – efforts to not only return the SABC to an apartheid-style state broadcaster but also a clear threat to our democracy. If we can’t trust the SABC to report on an issue of such clear national importance, how do we know critical facts are not being censored from the other key stories they report on? This is the tragedy of such short-sighted decisions. Reporters at the SABC will be lucky not to be tarred with the same brush of distrust; sad, but how can we expect audiences to think otherwise? Worse than the personal humiliation being visited on SABC journalists is the undermining of the SABC and media freedom more broadly.

We know millions still rely almost exclusively on the SABC for their news, and that the SABC still commands huge audiences, especially for its radio services. As we approach elections, the question must be asked as to who stands to gain from these decisions?

We are prepared for a long battle; we are receiving support on an increasing basis from SABC employees themselves as well as numerous other media and civil society bodies. The dark forces may be strong but the forces for democracy are just gathering. While those who seek to undermine our Constitution and democracy may win a few battles, history shows they will never win the war.

But the crisis is still deeper, for if ANY of the bodies responsible for governance and over-sight of the SABC were doing their job effectively, the decisions like this would not be tolerated and those responsible would not be allowed to continue. We have seen previous Ministers of Communication acting with haste to intervene with previous senior SABC managers, yet not this time. We have seen Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communication removing a full board and questioning senior management, but not this time. Icasa has power but has chosen to remain silent on these matters. The SABC board seems to have fallen completely silent. A positive reading is that their silence is dissent. An optimistic reading, but even if true it is even more revealing as it shows where real power lies regarding the SABC. So when the tide changes, as it will, we need to ensure that not only are those at the forefront of the censorship drive held to account but also all those who are tacitly allowing and or encouraging these actions. Ultimately the blame for these attacks on our democracy must also be levelled at their doors.

So what can you do? Join us! My call is to ask you to support our campaign: make your voice heard and sign the petition. Then, join us when we have our hearing at Icasa (date still to be finalised) against the SABC and make sure they know we are not going to accept our democracy being destroyed by a group of self-interested doorknobs. Support journalists within the SABC and encourage leaks. Use your social media to ask those in power why they are tacitly allowing a critical institution to be so deeply undermined. Critically, engage with the news, compare what you hear and demand better. DM

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