As Elections Loom, There’s a Crisis at South Africa’s Public Broadcaster

Critics warn that the state broadcasting company is currying favor with the ruling party — at the cost of journalistic objectivity.

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On Monday morning, Jimi Matthews, acting Chief Executive Officer of South Africa’s public broadcaster, SABC, tweeted a photo of his resignation letter. In the text, he described a “corrosive atmosphere” that has weighed on his “moral judgment.” The final line read simply, “What is happening at the SABC is wrong and I can no longer be a part of it.”

Although Matthews didn’t specify exactly what had prompted his departure, there is little doubt that the wording was a not-so-subtle nod to the growing accusations of government interference and censorship at the public broadcaster. After several policy changes and questionable editorial decisions in the last few months, free press activists have harshly criticized the SABC for what they see as an intensifying bias in favor of the governing African National Congress (ANC) party ahead of the hotly contested local elections in August.

While the ANC has dominated South African politics since the fall of apartheid in 1994, these elections could prove to be a turning point. The party is riven by factional infighting, it presides over a flatlining economy, and its head, President Jacob Zuma, has been accused of corruption. To try to turn its dismal numbers around, it’s no wonder the ANC has resorted to manipulating one of the country’s most influential broadcasters.

“[The SABC] is a crucial media machine and source of information for so many people that it does have the power to profoundly influence elections,” said Micah Reddy, an organizer at the Right2Know Campaign, a local organization that works to advance freedom of expression and access to information. With three TV channels and 18 radio stations, the broadcaster enjoys the lion’s share of South African media audiences. According to one estimate, SABC radio reaches a staggering 24 million people a day, nearly half of South Africa’s population. “For a lot of people, primarily constituencies that are critical to ANC support, the SABC is their primary and sometimes only source of broadcast news,” Reddy said. “A lot of these households won’t even have newspapers. They’ll be listening to SABC radio and watching SABC television.”

The SABC’s Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has emerged as a central figure in the drama. Since he began his tenure as COO in 2011, he has embarked on an increasingly heavy-handed purge of coverage that’s critical of the government. In early June, Motsoeneng yanked from the airwaves a long-running radio show that often critiqued the ANC, describing the move as a “revamp.” The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, painted the decision as blatant censorship.

Earlier this week, three SABC journalists were suspended for challenging an order not to cover a protest of the broadcaster’s own censorship practices. In response, three other senior journalists wrote a letter to Motsoeneng and other SABC leaders asking for clarity on the suspensions and lamenting the fact that their “journalistic integrity continues to be compromised.”

Most pernicious of all are the editorial changes. In a country with an unemployment rate of over 26 percent, regular protests over economic hardship, and numerous corruption scandals, Motsoeneng has stood by his 2013 call for all SABC television channels to air a minimum of 70 percent “good news.” Last May, in a bid to downplay societal tensions ahead of August’s elections, he banned any coverage of the sometimes violent protests that have swept the nation in recent months. In the past week, the SABC has failed to cover violent unrest connected to the announcement of the ANC’s mayoral candidate in Tshwane, the municipality that encompasses the city of Pretoria. The fact that many remain unsure as to the exact origin of the unrest illustrates why impartial coverage is so important.

Motsoeneng regularly steals headlines and attention on Twitter for his controversial public statements, such as declaring that he doesn’t believe in “scientific research” during a radio interview. Many of these #Hlaudisms reach nearly Trump-like levels of demagoguery, but as with Donald Trump, widespread criticism seems to glance off him with little effect. Despite a damning report by widely respected independent government investigator, Thuli Madonsela, which found that Motsoeneng had lied about his high school to the SABC, Motsoeneng retains control of the broadcaster.

The reasons for his longevity should come as little surprise, considering the clear pro-ANC bias of Motsoeneng’s decisions: he is an agent of the ruling party in its attempts to undermine the SABC’s independence. Motsoeneng is close to Faith Muthambi, the Minister of Communications, who once described the SABC as a state-owned company, not an independent public broadcaster, and who is an ardent supporter of President Zuma.

In September 2014, Muthambi circumvented the SABC’s board by signing an amended version of the corporation’s Memorandum of Incorporation that enhanced her power to hire and fire executives and to call for the removal of board members. The change essentially insulated Motsoeneng from possible removal from his position. In May, the minister instituted another change that gave Motsoeneng editorial control of the SABC, making him more powerful than its CEO.

In light of these political allegiances, it’s no wonder that Motsoeneng has felt free to double down. A few weeks ago, he announced that SABC would air no negative views of President Jacob Zuma, because he “deserves a certain degree of respect as president of the country.”

Despite these troubling trends at the country’s most widely watched and listened-to broadcaster, South Africa still scores moderately well on free press indices. In its 2015-16 report, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 39th on its worldwide index of press freedom.

In part, that’s because strong papers of record — like the Mail & Guardian and the Sunday Times — do hold the government to account. South Africa’s vibrant and independent online media also features critical commentary on the ruling party. But the costs of subscribing to these newspapers, or of accessing the internet, are beyond the reach of millions of South Africans. Especially in poor and rural communities, the press is only independent for those who can afford it. These barriers highlight both the importance of the existence of a public broadcaster in South Africa and the danger of that broadcaster taking an overtly pro-government line.

Neither accusations of pro-government bias nor major shake-ups are anything new for the SABC. “In the 1980s, the public broadcaster wasn’t a public broadcaster. It was a state mouthpiece, singing the tune of apartheid. In the 1990s it was radically transformed into a publicly accountable, transparent broadcaster,” Reddy said. “The situation as serious as now requires an even more serious, radical response.”

Spokespeople for the SABC, including Motseoneng, routinely defend the broadcaster against these allegations. In response to criticism of his “70 percent good news” directive, Motsoeneng flipped the argument on its head, describing the lack of positive news in the media as censorship. Other deflections involve flimsy legal interpretations of the South African constitution and the Broadcasting Act, which the SABC constantly claims to uphold. SABC did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Last week, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, a telecommunications and broadcasting regulatory body, held a public hearing into the SABC’s ban on reporting violent protests. The inquiry found that the broadcaster lacked any empirical evidence to back up its argument that covering violence would incite violence. Although that commission can’t reverse the ban, the hearing marked a sign of resistance to Motsoeneng’s power.

Perhaps more than ever before in its post-apartheid history, South Africa needs free and fair airwaves, and this includes an independent public broadcaster that would be equally critical of all parties. The ANC’s efforts to suppress such an institution during a time of crisis for the party makes this point self-evident. To truly uphold freedom of the press for all in South Africa, rich and poor, its public broadcaster must be made public once again.

In the photo, a man shouts slogans against South African President Jacob Zuma and the ruling ANC party during a protest in Johannesburg on April 27.

Photo credit: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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