The 2015 State of the Nation address (SONA2015) in South Africa serves as an interesting current case study for journalism and ethics majors around the world. The media events (or lack thereof) on the night of the address speaks to censorship by national broadcaster to protect the ruling party, and effectively a gag order of sorts imposed on the media by unlawfully jamming cellphone signals from the parliamentary chamber.
As per a report in City Press following the event, the local broadcaster, SABC, had refused to air video and audio of opposition parties being ejected from Parliament during the recent State of the Nation address. Further, the SABC Chief Operating Officer had banned the use of commentators on both radio and television during the address.
There were also further allegations that four of the six news rival eNCA satellites had experienced signal jamming during the period of the broadcast. eNCA later verified that this was, in fact the case, and that the satellite lines were jammed “by an unknown rogue operator”.
“What is sinister about this is that the rogue operator is transmitting a data stream with no video, audio or transmitter information on it… It is hard for us not to suspect sabotage,” said Patrick Conroy (the Managing Director of eNCA).
In spite of this, all local broadcasters used the same feed from Parliament, and yet the SABC’s coverage of the event differed from other channels. The Parliament TV feed, in particular, did not show the opposition EFF party led by the controversial figure Julius Malema, being violently removed by a combination of Parliamentary security and the South African Police service. Following their ejection from the chamber, the walkout by the strongest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was also not aired.
Hannes du Buisson, the president of the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union, was quoted as saying:
“It has been reported by members who overheard conversations on comms and in the control room that a senior news boss instructed the director not to cut away from the feed.”
However, a number of other staff members working on the SONA2015 broadcast said the instructions on what to air and what not to came directly from Jimi Matthews, the SABC’s group executive of news and current affairs.
On a different issue of censorship, the parliamentary session began with a stream of voiced objections since mobile phone signals were unlawfully jammed in the vicinity. Again, given that the threat of disruption was present (and publicly announced), many of these actions appear premeditated by the National Executive. If this is the case, this certainly does not bode well for freedom of speech in South Africa.
Local politicians appear to be becoming more Draconian in their measures when it comes to the media and regulating freedom of speech. With recent events, like those in France with Charlie Hebdo, the aspects of free speech vs what may be considered inflammatory (e.g. Mohammed images and other culturally insensitive cartoons), or those that can be considered of hindering the broader social good (e.g. articles encouraging people to play lottery or even simply discussing the validity of gambling on online casinos in South Africa in articles or on websites like these, have come to the fore.
Given the diverse moral views of various parties on such topics, censorship is being used increasingly to appease minority groups and the political elite. Ultimately, there needs to be some sort of independent watchdog that will help protect freedom of speech, from both broadcasters, and other social and political stakeholders.