South African public broadcaster embraces censorship to protect President Zuma
14 Dec 2012

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) promised to change its ways in an out-of-court settlement over a blacklisting scandal but hope of real change has been engulfed by a wave of censorship at the public broadcaster since the start of November.

Management at South Africa’s public broadcaster have pulled an interview with a cartoonist, cancelled a talk show discussion, arbitrarily dismissed a senior political journalist, centralised control over talk shows, issued directives about words deemed offensive to President Jacob Zuma and banned an advertisement featuring Zuma.

Staff members this week sent out a letter, written anonymously in fear of retribution, bemoaning an atmosphere of paranoia, fear and uncertainty at the public broadcaster.

Cartoonist Zapiro also found out this week that a pre-recorded interview with him would no longer be flighted on SABC 3’s Interface, a political debate show televised on Sundays. Zuma has recently dropped a defamation suit against Zapiro, who has riled him with his critical cartoons.

Senior political reporter for television news, Sophie Mokoena, was last week summarily removed from her post without reason. She was due to coordinate the SABC reporting team at the upcoming conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) but has attracted unfavourable attention from Zuma’s faction in the party.

During last week, the plug was also pulled at the last minute on a talk show discussion on Metro FM, South Africa’s largest commercial radio station with 6 million listeners, owned by the SABC. Three political journalists, from privately owned newspapers, were due to discuss the media’s coverage of the ANC conference.

The three journalists were already at the SABC offices in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, when they were informed that “higher powers” had ordered that the discussion be pulled.

SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng afterwards explained that “fairness” required that the ANC be represented at the talk show discussion, as the party would have been discussed.

Motsoeneng is alleged to be close to Zuma and has been called “Zuma’s enforcer” at the SABC and the “de facto SABC CEO”.

He was also involved in banning an advertisement in November showing a cartoon of Zuma eating fish and chips. The SABC gave a variety of explanations for the decision, ranging from that it suggested that the president endorsed the product, to it damaging his dignity, to it being offensive to suggest that he eats fish and chips.

The decision seems to have more to do with the depiction of a showerhead in the ad, derived from Zapiro’s depiction of a showerhead on Zuma’s head in his cartoons after Zuma had suggested that a shower was adequate protection against contracting HIV.

After the Metro FM censorship, SABC management threatened to can a regular workers’ issues slot on SAfm (an SABC-owned English language station with about 550,000 listeners) because the ANC was not represented — despite a representative from the ANC’s alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), being featured.

Motsoeneng’s subsequent solution to the “problem” is to centralise control over talk shows dealing with politics across the 18 SABC radio stations, a move which will add a bureaucratic layer that could stifle open engagement with issues, said Media Monitoring Africa.

At the beginning of November, the acting head of news Jimi Matthews banned the use of words such as “compound”, “homestead” and “any other such term” with reference to Zuma’s controversial private dwelling at Nkandla that is costing tax payers R260 million (17 million GBP). UNCUT has previously reported on calls by Zuma’s allies for insult laws after reports revealing Nkandla’s costs.

The SABC has also in recent months been accused of censoring reporting on Zuma’s detractors and last year tried to avoid broadcasting a correction for slandering an investigative journalist.

But even before that, in 2006, exposure of its decision to blacklist certain political commentators led to the Freedom of Expression Institute pursuing legal action. The out of court settlement was reached only last month (November) but seems to have left little if any impression on SABC management.

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