THE DICTATORIAL leanings of SABC head Hlaudi Motsoeneng have raised the ire of journalists and activists alike. Concern about content and the composition of the board at the national broadcaster has routinely been under the public spotlight for years. If there was any doubt that Motsoeneng is taking his cue from the ‘ancien regime’ — the old apartheid state — then several incidents over the past days will have served to confirm this view.
It all started out as a shakeup of programming content. All good and fine. The sudden instruction from Auckland Park to its radio affiliates, forcing stations to carry 80% local music was initially greeted with enthusiasm by the music industry. Then Motsoeneng set his curatorial sights on television content — canning several popular international soapies and reality shows, much to the chagrin of gogglebox fans.
The rash decision to can almost all imported shows, drew widespread condemnation. Did anyone forget to mention the problematic roll-out of digital television, which could ostensibly provide greater spectrum, whilst preserving access to the Bold and Beautiful? One would have thought a referendum amongst license holders and viewers, would have been required. But then Motsoeneng isn’t exactly a democrat, and the broadcaster and its board, has been heading down the path of totalitarianism for some years.
After pulling SAFM’s The Editors, the propaganda chief of operations has now embarked on a new censorship regime at SABC News, effectively banning coverage of protest action around the country, and (by all accounts), unlawfully cutting down on news coverage of political parties and civil society groups — engaging in what appears to be an outright banning of the Right to Know (R2K) campaign.
All in contravention of the values of openness, transparency and democratic accountability which are the hallmark of South Africa’s secular constitution. The broadcaster is bound by the Independent Electoral Commission to promote and safeguard democracy in South Africa.
The recent suspension of several employees over coverage of a R2K protest outside the SABC headquarters and following last year’s boardroom shuffle and revolving door fiasco has thus got to take the cake so far as the failure of governance, and ongoing maladministration at the broadcaster is concerned. Economics editor Thandeka Gqubule, RSG executive producer Foeta Krige and Afrikaans news producer Suna Venter were apparently all served with the papers on Thursday stating that they were suspended indefinitely. Similar bannings and suspension of journalists during the apartheid era, in particular the state of emergency, were routine.
As a person effectively banned because of my involvement in the struggle press and opposition to apartheid, I would have thought that the SABC board would have taken a far more considered approach, avoiding any potential political backlash.
The job of a national broadcaster is surely to reflect the country, warts and all, both to its people and the outside world? Instead, we see a return to the perfumed propaganda and sanctions-era censorship for which South Africa’s very own Lord Haw Haw, Cliff Saunders was world renowned. In 2001 Saunders succeeded in removing himself from South African apartheid history, by claiming that he had been in London all along, instead of reporting on the supposed ‘communist onslaught’ and the prowess of PW Botha’s military machine. The increasingly insular and strongarm antics at the SABC are thus a cause for consternation.
If the SABC is finally changing its mandate from that of a public broadcaster, to a mere lapdog of Pretoria and the Union Buildings, then viewers can be forgiven if they rather exercise their freedom of choice, by turning off in droves. Switching to alternative news providers and other sources of information, may be a lot easier these days, and is really just a wifi connection away.
Unlike the previous racist government, there are a plethora of online media providers, and satellite channels eager to step into the gap. The resulting disconnect from reality at the SABC, does not bode well for the public broadcaster, so far as ratings agencies and advertisers are concerned.