Climate of Fear at SABC has Implications for Civil Society
The announcement of SAFM radio anchor John Perlman's resignation from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been greeted with shock in many quarters.
His resignation has been portrayed as a struggle between Perlman and the Managing Director (MD) of News and Current Affairs, Snuki Zikalala, from which Zikalala has supposedly emerged victorious. Reportedly, the last straw for Perlman was when he was excluded from a decision about the appointment of his next co-presenter, following the resignation of Nikiwe Bikitsha.
Clampdown on Critical Commentary
However, other reports cite his apparent unhappiness with the SABC’s failure to address the climate of fear and distrust in the newsroom, following a furore about the blacklisting of political commentators on SABC services.
While Perlman still has to speak on his exact reasons for leaving, it can be inferred that he is unhappy with how events have unfolded. Many journalists, including Perlman, went out on a limb to testify to a Commission of Enquiry set up last year by the SABC’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dali Mpofu. This followed an incident on the AM live programme, when Perlman confirmed the existence of the blacklist, citing his experiences in the newsroom as proof. In the process, he contradicted the SABC's spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago on air, who presented the official position that no such list existed.
But the Commission found that Zikalala excluded numerous commentators on grounds that were not objectively defensible. According to the Commission: 'What does emerge is undoubtedly a worryingly narrow view of the range of permissible perspectives and qualities of what defines an individual as being approachable for comment and analysis. In turn, this situation restricts the range of views available to South Africans who depend on the SABC to provide them with the information upon which they make their democratic choices'.
While the SABC still has to explain what it is doing to implement the Commission's findings, it has been alleged that Perlman was given a written warning for bringing the SABC into disrepute: a shocking development given that he merely acted within his ethical obligations by correcting an untruth. In spite of much of the Commission's report against Zikalala, three months later there are no indications whether Zikalala will be disciplined for misconduct.
Perlman’s departure sends out strong signals that the SABC is not doing enough to address problems. In fact, their actions can be more accurately described as too little, too late. However, the problem should not only be reduced to one about Zikalala only, as there are complex institutional reasons why this censorious climate has developed. The SABC has lost several key staff members in the past few weeks to other broadcasters. While these resignations cannot be attributed directly to the blacklisting saga, it is becoming evident that many of the SABC's own stars do not consider the Corporation to be a preferred employer.
Implications for Civil Society
What relevance do these events have for civil society? A lot. Civil society organisations are heard on SABC services on a daily basis, and contribute actively to shaping public discourse. Civil society voices are often the most strident and vocal on the state of South African society, the extent of service delivery, responses to the HIV/ Aids pandemic and other pressing social issues. The AM live programme on SAFM makes space for civil society voices, and is an important platform that must be defended from attempts at censorship.
More especially, an emerging layer of social movements, concerned citizens' organizations, crisis committees and civics - termed 'uncivil society' by Ashwin Desai - tend to be the most vocal. If commentators are going to be excluded from SABC services for dubious reasons, then (un)civil society voices will probably be at the top of the blacklist, as it is these voices that challenge power the most consistently. In fact, blacklisting may well lead to the voices of the more corporate non-governmental organizations dominating over more radical sections of civil society, leading to a taming of debate, and a reduction in the diversity of opinion within civil society.
At least two of the blacklisted commentators are from civil society (Elinor Sisulu and Aubrey Matshiqi). Elinor Sisulu is Media and Advocacy manager of the Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe's Johannesburg office and Matshiqi is a research associate with the Centre for Policy Studies. Others on the blacklist - such as Sipho Seepe and William Gumede - comment heavily on civil society politics. So by excluding their voices, Zikalala narrowed the space for civil society debates in the mainstream of political debate.
These exclusions have particular relevance for the struggle in Zimbabwe, where censorship is a daily reality. Many Zimbabwean organisations are opening up offices in South Africa in view of the relatively free media climate in the country, and many Zimbabwean and South African civil society organisations are co-operating to find a resolution to the Zimbabwean crisis.
The Commission found that, in addition to Sisulu, Zikalala gave an instruction not to use Deputy Chairperson of the SA Institute for International Affairs, Moeletsi Mbeki, and he told Trevor Ncube (owner of the Mail and Guardian newspaper) that he could not be used because 'you smash Zimbabwe'. If the SABC excludes certain commentators because Zikalala does not like their views, then the Corporation is perpetrating a double injustice on the Zimbabwean people, by censoring those who have already been censored by the Zimbabwean government. It also leads to unbalanced reporting on Zimbabwean issues in that significant opinion makers' voices would have been excluded not on the basis of newsworthiness, but on the basis that they are critical of the ruling Zanu PF.
With respect to Sipho Seepe, the Commission found that although Zikalala had not issued a direct instruction not to use him, the fact that he expressed an opinion characterizing Mr. Seepe's articles as 'not articles that were building this nation but articles that were undermining the President', would probably have been interpreted as an instruction.
The Commission also noted their concern at the inappropriateness of Zikalala's comment on Seepe, stating that 'it is not the role of the SABC to represent the Government or to improperly shield the Government from criticism'. An inferred instruction would inevitably lead to coverage that is partial to the Government, as Seepe was considered suspect because of his anti-Government views. If the MD of news harbours such a view, then it should surprise no-one if civil society organisations who have critical things to say about government delivery, are excluded too.
Zikalala's comments about Matshiqi were even more disturbing. Zikalala refused to allow Matshiqi to be interviewed on the succession debate because he had apparently warned that South Africa may descend into civil war if the volatile situation in the country was not addressed. Zikalala apparently interpreted this as Matshiqi inciting violence. The Commission found that his exclusion conflicted with the Editorial Policy's requirements to provide a full spectrum of opinion. If Zikalala's logic is allowed to stand, then sections of civil society that have warned of similar possibilities (and there are many) will be excluded from SABC services, for the 'crime' of pointing out reality.
The Commission also found Zikalala's condemnation of William Gumede to be inappropriate, namely that his book 'Thabo Mbeki and the Soul of the ANC' used unnamed sources, and that this condemnation was tantamount to an instruction not to use him. Gumede has written extensively about the politics of South African civil society, mapping many of the internal contestations over economic policy, relationships to government and other matters. He has tracked the conflicts over civil society approaches to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which many consider to be a turning point for civil society, in that it exposed crucial political fissures between NGO's and social movements. This sort of analysis - crucial for debate about the direction of civil society - will not be heard on SABC services in future, if Zikalala has his way.
Zikalala's attempt to justify his decisions to exclude these commentators by hastily drafting a set of guidelines, without consultation, was also criticized by the Commission. According to these guidelines, 'commentators must have a demonstrable level of competency in whatever field they are selected to speak about. Generally this will mean that they are attached to some sort of academic institution, research organization or body that actively involved in the area that is under discussion. Where possible "independent experts" should be avoided'. The guidelines also note that the newsroom should avoid using journalists from rival media organizations as commentators.
The Corporatisation of Political Commentary
This amounts to what could be described as a corporatisation of political commentary, where voices attached to research or academic institutions, will, in the main, be considered credible. In the process, a range of voices emerging organically from grassroots activity may be excluded, as they are not connected to research institutions.
Also, sourcing commentators from academic or research institutions is no guarantee that the information on which they base their commentary is fresh. Such guidelines may privilege civil society organizations that are more research-based, rather than the activist-based ones, leading to a skewed representation of the diversity of opinion in the sector.
Civil society is a strong contributor to the various programmes of the SABC. Yet civil society is not vigorous enough about defending this space. Given the fact that it was civil society in tandem with the liberation movement that brought about the transformation of the SABC, through the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting (CIB), this culture of activism must be reclaimed if we are to prevent a reversion to a state broadcaster. Civil society should participate in the development of guidelines on the use of commentators, to guide the thorny question of who get to speak on SABC services, and on what basis.
The CIB was also very clear that editorial independence would be impossible without management and Board independence. Since the corporatisation of the SABC in 2003, the Minister of Communications has gradually eroded the independence of the SABC Board, to the point where the Board has no real control over many of its most vital functions (such as the development of its strategic objectives and performance targets). The three top managers at the SABC, who are also Executive members of the Board, are now appointed by the Minister, not the Board.
Civil society must contest the Board to ensure that its voice is heard at this level, but must also ensure that it functions independently from the Minister. The state of health of the public broadcaster is not just a matter that concerns journalists; it is an indication of the state of health of our democracy. If we do not fight to defend it, and to defend the rights of journalists who seek to open the space to civil society voices, then we have, partially, ourselves to blame if it shuts us out.
The recent experiences of organisations such as Earthlife South Africa - whose work around radioactivity levels at Pelindaba, prompted threats of incitement legislation from the government - the Treatment Action Campaign, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Anti-Privatisation Forum - whose marches have been banned or broken up violently by the police - tell us that the space civil society enjoys cannot be taken for granted. It has to be fought for. The SABC is but one aspect of that fight.
Jane Duncan, Executive Director, Freedom of Expression Institute.