The environment show 50/50 has ignited a legal feud in rhino conservation circles, writes Sipho Kings.
A nasty spat has broken out between rhino conservation organisations, facilitated by the SABC 2 environment show 50/50. The verbal, and now legal, war started when the three-decades-old show investigated Rhino Force, a private company making bracelets to raise awareness and funds for rhino conservation.
In the show it was alleged that the company had abused its relationship with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a non-profit organisation, and underpaid its workers.
Rhino Force has taken exception to the way it was portrayed and its lawyers will issue a complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. "They presented a programme in which controversial issues of public importance were discussed, without making reasonable efforts to fairly represent our opposing points of view," it said in a 2 000-word statement.
The first inkling that something was brewing came last week when Chris and Joanne Thorpe, the founders of Rhino Force, urgently contacted the Mail & Guardian and other media organisations for an interview. They were worried about the upcoming show.
They hinted, without using names, that information had been leaked to 50/50 that would colour the show in a way that would damage their reputation.
In 2011 they had approached the EWT with an offer to put its label on bracelets and donate a portion of the money raised to the EWT. R3-million was raised for the trust over the next two years. The relationship ended in December 2012 and the two organisations went their separate ways. But only R700 000 of the R3-million they had given the trust was accounted for, they said.
Yolan Friedmann, the head of EWT, said the trust had released a statement about this and then said nothing more. They thought the issue was over until 50/50 approached her for an interview.
The agreement did not require that they account for the R3-million. But Rhino Force had now raised concerns about transparency and the EWT would be releasing the records, she said.
"We are a public benefit organisation that has to be accountable for everything we do. Every cent goes through checks and balances and to our board and accountants. That money was spent on conservation."
This argument was part of the 50/50 broadcast but, at its core, is a fight over a competing bracelet and allegations that Rhino Force is not paying its workers as much as it claimed. An anonymous employee on the show said she was paid only R1.20 a bracelet. Rhino Force says this is a misrepresentation - that payment is for only part of the process and each employee gets R2.60 a bracelet and earns between R2 400 and R5 000 a month.
Rhino Force says it gave 50/50 a 90-minute interview, which was edited. "The omissions have grossly impacted our image," it says.
It says the programme was an attempt to destroy the company after the EWT partnered with another company to make similar bracelets. The two journalists wore these during an interview, which amounted to public endorsement of the competition, it claims.
"We are of the view that the broadcast was nothing more than an attempt to force a competitor out of the market."
The SABC did not respond to a request for comment.