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SABC betrays South Africa's young democracy

Supporters of President Jacob Zuma's ruling ANC party cheer at their final election rally in Soweto, May 4. South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday. (Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

This week, South Africans go to the polls for their fifth democratic elections since 1994, but despite constitutional guarantees of media freedom, the vast majority of South Africans who vote will do so informed only by the positive news and information carried by a public broadcaster widely criticized for its partiality to the ruling party.

Once dubbed "his master's voice" for its sycophantic relationship to the ruling National Party and its role in maintaining apartheid rule, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has travelled a circuitous path since 1994. At first reveling in its new role as a public broadcaster, answerable to an independent regulator, and determined to cover all aspects of the "new" South Africa, the SABC in recent years has been poisoned by factionalism among ruling party loyalists and crippled by self-censorship.

Today, South Africa's broadcasting environment is significantly diversified, with numerous independent voices on air. The minority who can afford to pay for print publications, satellite television, and online access have a limitless variety of news and opinion. But for the majority of the country's 51 million people, the radio and TV channels of the SABC are almost the only options. The SABC remains the largest newsgathering organization in the country, owning three of the four national free-to-air TV stations, 18 regional and national radio stations, and one Africa-wide radio channel. It also broadcasts in all South Africa's 11 official languages, plus indigenous Khoisan tongues !Xu and Khwe.

The central role of the SABC was recognized 21 years ago, as South Africa haltingly negotiated its way towards democracy. A new board was appointed in 1993, ahead of the first elections, to begin the transformation from a state to a public broadcaster. In a 2012 obituary to the SABC's first post-apartheid chief executive, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Pippa Green recounted how Sisulu had reassured his staff that they would never need to "look over your shoulder because I will protect you from the politicians," and how veteran journalist and political commentator Allister Sparks had described Sisulu as a "heat shield" for the SABC's news department.

The contrast with today is sharp. Respected staff members have resigned in numbers; two boards have collapsed in the past five years; the communications minister (who is responsible for the broadcasting sector and to whom the board reports) was axed in mid-2013, and opposition parties allege that the current board is stacked with ruling-party affiliates. Recently, SABC board chairwoman Ellen Tshabalala told a public meeting that residents should vote for the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

In February this year, Thuli Madonsela, the public protector (a statutory ombudsman empowered to investigate "any conduct in state affairs or public administration in any sphere of government") called for the replacement of the SABC's acting chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. In a damning report entitled, "When governance and ethics fail," she found him guilty on a number of counts, including irregularly increasing salaries of some staff and purging others, leading to expensive court actions and settlements. In direct defiance of the public protector, board chairwoman Tshabalala said she had no intention of firing Motsoeneng, according to news reports.  However, the SABC reported that Tshabalala had not discounted the report and that the board was considering its response.

Last month SABC management told staffers that they should not broadcast footage of crowds attending opposition rallies in the run-up to the May 7 elections, while Tshabalala warned employees that their cellphones may be monitored by the National Intelligence Agency because they worked at a "national key point" and should not leak information, according to news reports. South Africa's National Key Points Act is an apartheid-era law restricting access to and coverage of any building or location deemed such a point. CPJ's efforts to reach the SABC's spokesman, Kaizer Kganyago, for comment were unsuccessful.

A former head of news and current affairs at the post-apartheid SABC and now director of the Wits Radio Academy at Johannesburg's Wits University, Franz Kruger, told CPJ that "the real danger to editorial independence was less intervention from on high, although that does occur, but self-censorship and excessive caution." He said that all too often, editorial staff "just don't want to rock the boat," and sometimes stayed away from stories "just in case it leads to trouble."

As political parties have intensified their campaigns ahead of this week's poll, the SABC has pulled the political advertisements of two opposition parties--the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In the first instance, the DA took the SABC to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) for banning its 45-second "Ayisafani" (it's not the same) advert, allegedly because it brought the police into disrepute by pointing out instances of police brutality. The DA won its case, but then the South African Police Services issued a similar complaint over the same advert, which ICASA upheld, and the party was ordered to excise the offending claim. (The DA has since produced a second advertisement, which it initially claimed on Twitter had also been banned, but this was not so, according to news reports.)

ICASA upheld the SABC's decision not to air the EFF advertisement. The SABC claimed language in the EFF spot calling on supporters to destroy e-tolls (a system of electronic tollgates on the road network around Gauteng, the country's economic hub) was likely to incite illegal or criminal acts, according to news reports.

It is perhaps little wonder that in less than a month before the May 7 national poll, a leading Sunday newspaper mourned the death of the SABC in an editorial headlined, "Here lies the SABC #RIP," castigating the behavior of Motsoeneng and concluding, "For all intents and purposes, the most vital institution of democracy--the public broadcaster--as we imagined it in the early 1990s is dead and buried."

[Reporting from Cape Town]

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