SABC Censorship – SONA2015

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.

EFF removed from parliament by security forces

Julius Malema and the EFF ejected from parliament

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.

EFF threat to disrupt parliament image

EFF publicly declared their strategy to disrupt the parliamentary session

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.

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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.

Comparing SABC to the BBC

On a recent visit to the UK, I met a number of media companies and local journalists including a few members of the editorial team at the BBC. It was clear only minutes into the conversation that the issues facing the broadcasting industry there were significantly different from those the SABC are currently grappling with in South Africa. They were more future-focused and ranged from harnessing the opportunities brought about by technology changing journalism and interactivity, to how to manage a changing public demand for content.

In South Africa, the SABC’s key challenges appear to be almost exclusively internal. Between political bickering about news coverage, the evident SABC leadership crisis, exposed fraud and abundant corruption, there is little time to consider customer service and needs, let alone any thought leadership on the future of broadcasting. Of course, this is not to say that the BBC does not have its own internal leadership issues – it certainly does. However, the scale is different by an order of magnitude.

The broadcasting industry focus and public media attention in the UK lies more on equity, technological progress and quality of service. A quick glance at the BBC editor blogs will easily validate that. There is a substantial platform for interaction with the end customer – not only through the likes of World Have Your Say and the multitude of reporter blogs, but more directly so on BBC editorial content and general programming.

SABC photo

SABC head office – Johannesburg. Photo by Mike Powell.

In South Africa, you’d be hard pressed to find a place to voice similar opinions on the SABC, other than next to your water cooler at your own office. The fact that senior BBC editorial staff usually reply to many of the comments, concerns and feedback adds to the sense of customer focus that is so lacking at the SABC.

The recently published findings of forensic reports on the SABC shed more light on its lack of customer focus. It appears that the SABC leadership team are more concerned with self-enrichment and political positioning than with the job of broadcasting.

Consider the following findings in the SABC audit:

  1. “Irregular contracts” to the value of close to R200 Million (over US$23.5 Million) that were deemed by the SABC’s own internal audit team to have delivered “no significant value”
  2. Evidence of tender awards where there were clear conflicts of interest with the negotiating parties
  3. “Irregular expenditure” around sponsorship for events (a la ICT Indaba)
  4. Providing a politically connected family with free exposure worth millions for their newspaper, the New Age
  5. Hiring Hlaudi Motsoeneng as Chief Operating Officer after ignoring its own governance structures. This, incidently, is a person who had lied about twice failing high school matric.
  6. Appalling recruitment and due diligence practices including hiring the likes of Justice Ndaba who had forged 3 qualifications including an MBA to secure his position. To aggravate the situation he was allowed to continue working even after this was discovered!
  7. Last month, the SABC suspended its Chief Financial Officer, Gugu Duda for “procurement irregularities”.

When it comes to reporting, the question of the impartiality of the public broadcaster is always on the table. In this respect, the SABC is no different from the BBC. Locally however, the bias appears more explicitly. For example, the SABC was asked to avoid media coverage for local firebrand Julius Malema since he has become a thorn in the ruling ANC government’s side. Complying to this kind of direct request is unlikely to go down well in the UK. In South Africa however, it seems par for the course.

It is unfortunate that there is a complete lack of accountability at SABC. How can it then expect tax payers to cough up an additional R6 Billion (over US$700 Million) to fund a digital strategy when its house is in disarray and there is ample evidence of what can only be described as looting? When failing to meet 68% of a total of 89 goals set for the broadcaster constitutes an “overwhelming success”, what chance is there the SABC will come even close to anything like the BBC?

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You are not alone if you think that betting on the SABC pulling itself out of its current mess is like putting your faith in online gambling in South Africa or on the likes of this excellent website in the UK. Sadly, you probably stand better odds of success if you buy lottery tickets online and keep your fingers crossed. One can only hope that the South African public raise enough of an raucous about the SABC so that the government is forced to take stock and more importantly, action, to rectify the situation.

Stay tuned for our forthcoming editorials on interactive TV, social issues around human trafficking, online gambling legislation in South Africa and more.