The senior journalist's removal shortly before Mangaung smacks of censorship, say staff.
As the row over censorship at the SABC grows, the Mail & Guardian has learnt that the public broadcaster's senior political reporter for television, Sophie Mokoena, has been abruptly removed from the political team.
Although senior SABC staff confirmed that Mokoena had been taken off the political team in the run-up to the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung, her political editor, Abbey Makoe, denied it.
"She has not been removed from politics," Makoe said this week, adding, rather bizarrely: "Not that I know."
Editorial staff are concerned that political pressure was behind Mokoena's removal and they described this inexplicable decision and the muzzling of three political journalists on a Metro FM show on Tuesday night as part of a growing trend of censorship at the SABC.
Although Mokoena declined to comment, the M&G was told the experienced journalist was informed last month she would no longer be covering politics and would not be going to Mangaung. Her role at the conference had already been mapped out and she had been appointed co-ordinator of the political team.
Mokoena took leave after the news was broken to her. When she returned to work this week, she was not told what position she would be occupying or given anything to do, said SABC sources. Despite her repeated request for a letter outlining why she had been removed from the political team, it has not been forthcoming.
Supporters of President Zuma in the ANC have in the past voiced unhappiness about Mokoena's reporting.
Makoe's denial of the events is mystifying, but stranger things have happened at the SABC in recent weeks.
Some of his senior colleagues were astounded by acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng's admission in last week's M&G that he had made the controversial decision to take the Fish & Chip Co TV advert "Dinner time at Nkandla", which satirises President Jacob Zuma, off the air.
Motsoeneng's powerful position at the SABC, where he is considered to be a Zuma enforcer, was now deeply entrenched, said staff.
"He seems to be in charge of the SABC, which is embarrassing because he does not even have a matric," said a senior staffer. "We love the public broadcaster and we take pride in our work. We just feel that we can't simply stand by and ignore what is happening."
The M&G was informed that the acting group executive for news and current affairs, Mike Siluma, first heard the next morning that the Metro FM show featuring the three senior political journalists had been pulled on Tuesday night.
"How can it be that we are making the news," said another senior staffer. "We are meant to be covering the news."
Tip of the iceberg
This now highly publicised canning of the programme was "just the tip of the iceberg" at the SABC, where censorship and paranoia were apparently running rife, SABC sources said.
At a hastily convened press conference on Wednesday afternoon, the acting head of radio, Leslie Ntloko, and Motsoeneng addressed the media about the controversial cancellation of the talk show, which is hosted by Metro FM presenter Sakina Kamwendo.
Sunday Times political editor S'thembiso Msomi, Business Day political editor Sam Mkokeli and Financial Times Southern African bureau chief Andrew England were already at the SABC studios when the show was abruptly cancelled.
Ntloko said when management learned the ANC was not participating in the programme, the plug was pulled. "We looked at it [the briefing] and asked whether there was fairness and balance," said Ntloko. "We took the decision because there was no fairness."
The decision to pull the talk show sparked strong criticism from the public. Some saw it as an echo of the SABC's practice in 2006 of "blacklisting" certain journalists who were critical of the ANC in the run-up to its Polokwane conference in 2007.
With the Freedom of Expression Institute's five-year-long legal complaint against the SABC on the matter finally being settled out of court less than a month ago, the public broadcaster was at pains to try to correct the perception that the cancellation of the Metro FM show could be another blacklisting saga.
"The decision has nothing to do with the individuals [journalists] concerned," said Kaizer Kganyago, spokesperson for the SABC.
Refusing to name who had made the decision to pull the show, Motsoeneng said SABC "management" had cancelled the show because it did not include an ANC representative. "Our view is simple," said Motsoeneng. "You need the ANC to be part of this discussion."
As a national event of "party-political importance", a discussion about Mangaung would require special attention to "objectivity, accuracy, fairness, impartiality and balance", as stipulated in SABC editorial guidelines.
According to Motsoeneng, this meant an ANC representative had to be present in every single discussion held by the SABC about Mangaung.
Asked why the SABC had flouted such practices of "balance" in non-ANC related matters in the past, Motsoeneng said: "It happened. I agree with you. I don't want to defend issues that we can't defend. A wrong can't be right. We are correcting the wrong that was happening.
"You need to understand we mean business here at the SABC. This is leadership at its best!" he said. "We cannot allow the SABC to be leaderless."
Motsoeneng denied that the decision was sparked by political interference.
"I will never allow any politician to influence the SABC," he said.