The many foibles of the SABC
News that SABC's head of news Jimi Matthews has instructed reporters at the public broadcaster to refer to President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla home as his "Nkandla residence" and not "compound", "homestead" or "any other such term" has been met with derision from the public. But views from the media sector are split.
Cope MP Juli Kilian brought the instruction to national attention at a sitting of the national assembly. The email also directs reporters to refrain from using the terms "Nkandlagate, Zumaville and such like".
Speaking to the Star on Tuesday, SABC's head of news Jimi Matthews told the newspaper that the word "compound" was a term used by white South Africans to refer to homes for "black migrant workers".
"It comes from our racial past [as a way of referring] to accommodation for migrant workers on the mine," he said.
His reasoning closely echoed the explanation given on Monday by Zuma's spokesperson Mac Maharaj, who first took issue with the word "compound".
Jane Duncan, Highway Africa chair of media and information society at Rhodes University, said it was difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that Matthews was sanitising the news to cause minimal offence to the powers that be.
"While I can understand the sensitivities around the use of the word 'compound' – but not the use of the word 'homestead' – Jimi Matthews's email instruction goes way beyond what is needed to address this particular issue, and way beyond the legitimate exercise of editorial authority, and tilts over into out and out censorship," said Duncan.
Banning the use of "any such term" was unacceptably broad, she said.
"Sensitivity to the political histories of particular terms is necessary and important, but the inclusion of less loaded terms like 'homestead' and even any term other than the ones prescribed, is way beyond what is needed in the situation to address such sensitivities," she said.
But Wits University journalism professor Anton Harber said that he did not share the outrage over Matthews's instruction.
"Broadcasters - like all journalists, and especially public broadcasters - would be expected to avoid judgmental and value-laden words like Nkandlagate and Zumaville, compound or homestead," he said.
Harber said it was healthy for newsrooms to debate the choice of words it would use to tell a story and to seek out the most neutral terminology.
He raised concerns however over whether it was clear that there should be no problem quoting instances where people had used the word.
The incident may have been of less significance if not for the history of political interference – real or perceived—at the SABC.
In September, the Broadcast, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers' Union reported that its members at the SABC had been instructed not to report on the activities or whereabouts of expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. The broadcaster denied the allegations, saying it had only appealed for more responsible and in depth reporting on the issues.
Last year, the SABC fought an arduous battle to avoid having to apologise for a news report in which businessman Robert Gumede alleged that Mail & Guardian reporter Sam Sole had taken a bribe and that the publication was racially biased.
Years before, the SABC came under fire for blacklisting political analysts critical of the Mbeki government. Among them was the name of political analyst Karima Brown.
Brown herself has taken a reserved approach to the news of the latest SABC directive to journalists, saying such incidents do not only happen at the SABC but occur in many newsrooms.
"Any attempt to manipulate the way in which news is disseminated should raise alarm bells, from whichever quarters it comes whether it comes from the public broadcaster or the mainstream media," she said.
"This instance involves the SABC but many newsrooms also take decisions like this and I think we should frown up it because what it does is it makes journalists vulnerable to political machinations and that is dangerous."
Tuwani Gumani, general secretary of the Media Workers Association of South Africa – which is no longer associated with the SABC after a falling out over the broadcaster's turnaround strategy—said his concern was that the incidence would dent the credibility fo the SABC and create a "contagion effect" on the journalists it employs.
"All of a sudden journalists are either going to be labelled pro-Zuma [or anti-Zuma] and that will tamper with their integrity," he said.
"We're simply lambasting the SABC as a corporate and we forget that there are professional people in the SABC who are taking that much more strain."
At the same time Matankano Mothapo, spokesperson for the Communication Workers Union, said it agreed with the SABC's decision to ban the words. "There is no way we're going to allow some of these words to be used against our democratically elected president. The words … are really unacceptable," he said.