Censored: The SABC in turmoil

The wheels, rims and axles are flying off the SABC wagon as staff threaten a news blackout.

Senior SABC managers, including journalists, are seeking an urgent meeting with the public broadcaster’s board to discuss recent editorial decisions by chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Failure by the board to meet staff would result in a news blackout, staff warned.

The proposed blackout follows yesterday’s resignation of the SABC’s acting CEO Jimi Matthews over what he called a “corrosive atmosphere”.

This morning more pressure will be exerted on Motsoeneng as the DA says it will picket outside SABC headquarters in Auckland Park demanding Motsoeneng vacate his office. The DA says Motsoeneng has proved he is not a fit and proper person to manage the SABC.

SABC journalists have told The Times that Hlaudi rules like a dictator and that anyone who opposes him is axed. The proposed blackout would see staff come to work but doing nothing to get the news out.

Another senior news producer said they would fight to regain control and prove to the public that they were not all “captured”.

“There are forces at play here and they are using Hlaudi to capture the SABC. We are going back to the old days and we will fight to the end to regain our editorial independence,” said a radio news producer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation. SA National Editors’ Forum executive director Mathatha Tsedu said on possible blackouts: “Sanef has no view on the steps SABC staff would take. It’s a democratic country and they can do whatever they like.the staff are the ones in pain and in the middle of it and they know how to deal with it.”

Yesterday Matthews shocked the public when he said: “For months I have compromised values that I hold dear under the mistaken belief that I could be more effective inside the SABC than outside.What is happening at the SABC is wrong and I can no longer be a part of it.”

The “corrosive atmosphere” is created by, among other things, Motsoeneng’s order that no images of violent protests be shown on TV news broadcasts.

The blackouts are being contemplated after a letter was written by SABC executive producers Busisiwe Ntuli and Krivani Pillay and senior investigative journalist Jacques Steenkamp requesting a meeting with the board.

The letter is believed to be behind Matthews’ resignation. It follows the suspension of economics editor Thandeka Gqubule, Radio Sonder Grense executive editor Foeta Krige and journalist Suna Venter.

They were suspended for disagreeing with Motsoeneng’s orders to not report on anti-censorship protests at the SABC’s offices.

Matthews, head of the SABC’s group radio and TV editors and general managers, wrote to Motsoeneng on Sunday stating its newsrooms had become sources of “derision, despair and criticism”.

“The developments have heightened this sense of fear, lack of clarity about our journalists’ responsibility and low staff morale.”

The executive producers’ letter criticised the removal of the SABC’s newspaper slots and The Editors on SAfm’s AM Live, which they say amounts to censorship.

In their letter they say: “As journalists having to operationalise the policies of this public institution, we feel aggrieved that journalistic integrity continues to be compromised. We wish to register our deep concern for our colleagues who have been suspended for expressing their right to freedom of expression by simply debating and assessing the newsworthiness of events as expected.”

They say the latest pronouncements “fundamentally erode the right of the public to know the whole story about developments in their communities.

“These pronouncements effectively render our newsrooms incapable of providing compelling audiovisual content that educates and informs the public and disseminates balanced and accurate information.”

Humphrey Maxegwana, parliamentary communications portfolio committee chairman, said the latest developments were alarming.

“When parliament’s recess ends we will meet to discuss summoning the SABC to explain exactly what is going on.”

William Bird, Media Monitoring Africa director, said a blackout was an extreme but effective tactic.

“These are desperate times at the SABC. Journalists are being suspended for legitimate dissent.”

Sekoetlane Phamodi, national co-ordinator of the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, welcomed the proposed blackouts.

“It’s time the SABC’s rank and file stand up and show the broadcaster’s board and parliament, which is derelict in its duties to ensure stability within the SABC, that the situation of decay cannot be tolerated.

“The SABC belongs to South Africans. We have a right to know what is going on.”

Hannes du Buisson, Broadcasting Electronic Media And Allied Workers Union president, said: “We support any action as long as it is properly managed and complies with labour legislation.”

By Graeme Hosken and Dominic Mahlangu for www.rdm.co.za

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