Can The SABC Be Saved From Itself?
Can South Africa’s public broadcaster be saved from itself?
South Africa’s public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), staggers from one crisis to the next. It has been politically contested from apartheid days, used by ruling parties as a valuable “propoganda” tool since its formation in 1936. The broadcaster has been extremely contentious in recent years, especially because of the role its controversial Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has been playing in the factional battles of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). He has also been accused of censorship and bullying of news personnel, not to mention the fact that South Africa’s Public Protector two years ago found that he had lied about his matric certificate (proof in the country that a person has passed their final year of secondary education). That report also described his management style as being “pathological”.
In recent weeks Motsoeneng has suspended senior news personnel, introduced a controversial local music quota and seen the corporation’s Acting Chief Executive Officer, Jimi Matthews, resign because of his “reign of terror”.
Many media people, politicians (including many in the ANC) and other citizens have literally given up on the SABC, saying it is not salvageable. The Conversation Africa’s politics and society editor, Thabo Leshilo, asked media activist and academic Kate Skinner if the SABC, which is regulated by the Broadcasting Act, can be saved.
What does the Broadcasting Act require of the SABC?
The Act sets out specific requirements for broadcasting and, in particular, for the SABC as South Africa’s public broadcaster.
The Act introduced a charter that emphasises the principles that should underpin the workings of the SABC. These include the “independence of the corporation” and the “right to freedom of expression”.
Further, the charter calls on the SABC to encourage South African expression, in all official languages, that “reflects South African attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity”. It calls for a “plurality of views and a variety of news, information and analysis”.
Further, the Act calls for the passing of editorial policies through a public process. The 2004 policies envisaged an SABC committed to establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and human rights. It envisaged an institution that laid the foundations for a democratic and open society “in which government is based on the will of the people”.
However, the Act is also flawed. It is silent on who employs the executives of the SABC, allowing the communications minister to interfere in appointments. Further, it has a flawed funding model that pushes the SABC to pursue commercial funding to fulfil its public mandate, causing deep internal contradictions in its approach.
How important is the SABC in the country’s news media landscape?
The SABC is the most important news institution in the country. Although there is significantly more competition in the broadcasting market than there was in 1994, the SABC remains the leader.
The top six most popular radio stations in the country are SABC stations, with isiZulu language station Ukhozi FM as the front-runner with 7.5 million listeners daily. SABC 1 and SABC 2 are the most popular television stations. SABC 1 has an audience share of 75.4% and SABC 2 of 70.4%. Free-to-air competitor e.tv is at 65%. For many lower LSM (or lifestyle measurement) listeners and viewers the SABC stations are the only stations they have access to.
What is wrong with Motsoeneng’s decree not to show footage of damage to property during protests? What did the decree actually say?
The decree states that the SABC must not show “destructive and regressive” visuals of violent protest action and damage to property. The statement goes on to argue that this “might encourage other communities to do the same”.
The arguments are nonsensical. There is no proof that communities watching violent footage will then resort to violence. It is also an act of paternalism to decide for viewers what they can and cannot see. It is interesting to note that the ANC has now acknowledged that this “decree” was in fact illegal and in contravention of the Broadcasting Act and the SABC’s original editorial policies.
Why is Motsoeneng able to do what he does?
The SABC’s oversight structures are incredibly weak. These structures include parliament, the ministry, the regulator and the SABC board. Certain structures have directly colluded with Motsoeneng. Communications Minister Faith Muthambi appointed Motsoeneng as permanent chief operations officer despite a damning report from the Public Protector that characterised his management style as “pathological”.
Parliament has delayed filling vacant posts on the SABC board, leaving the board weak and inquorate. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, which is an independent regulatory body for broadcasters, has steadfastly refused to deal with issues of censorship stretching back to the days of then SABC news head Snuki Zikalala and the 2006 blacklisting crisis. But Motsoeneng has also engaged in populist politics, for instance getting musicians and artists to support his sudden, unresearched directive that all radio stations must implement 90% local music.
What is the significance of the recent resignation of Acting Chief Executive Officer Jimi Matthews and the breaking of ranks by some SABC staff?
The resignation is significant as it directly exposes the levels of censorship at the SABC. It gives us an insider perspective on the culture of fear that has pervaded the SABC’s corridors.
Can the SABC be salvaged? How?
The SABC is a public resource. It is important to note the list of demands put forward at the July 6 2016 protest by a group of civil society organisations and, interestingly, the South African Communist Party, which is part of the ANC’s ruling alliance.
They have called for the immediate lifting of the suspension of journalists facing disciplinary action. They have called for the SABC’s illegally revised editorial policies to be scrapped. They have demanded that Motsoeneng be fired.
They have called on parliament to reconstitute the board on an urgent basis. They have demanded that the minister of communications be fired for colluding with Motsoeneng and allowing new editorial policies to be passed illegally. And they have called for a presidential commission of inquiry. These are important demands.
In the long term, however, the Broadcasting Act must be repealed. We need new legislation that better protects the independence of the SABC and ensures more public funding.