R2K and SOS have written to SABC board chair Zandile Tshabalala to ask her whether she invoked the National Key Points Act as a warning to staff.
The Right2Know Campaign and SOS: Support Public Broadcasting have written to the controversial SABC board chairperson Zandile Tshabalala to ask her whether she invoked the National Key Points Act to warn staff not to leak information to the public, as staff have claimed.
This was not the first time the National Key Point was "invoked" to deal with internal dissent at the public broadcaster, the groups claimed.
"We are aware that the National Key Points Act is a vicious and unconstitutional apartheid-era security law that has often been used to suppress information and stifle dissent, but you may be interested to know that you have gone beyond the unconstitutional prescripts of the Act," the organisations claimed this week.
"There is nothing in the draconian National Key Points Act that would prevent SABC staff from informing the public of evidence of political interference and governance crises at the public broadcaster. As expansive and draconian as the National Key Points Act is, the Act can only go as far as criminalising someone who reveals aspects of the physical security features at a national key point, not the affairs of the national key points in general."
The Mail and Guardian last week revealed how staff had complained that Tshabalala had warned them at a meeting in January that state spies could be listening to their calls and that they should stop leaks as the public broadcaster was a national key point. Four editorial staff, who were present when Tshabalala spoke, independently confirmed the details of the meeting, but they all declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
The president of the Broadcasting, Electronics, Media and Allied Workers' Union (Bemawu) Hannes du Buisson told the M&G last week that he had recently received a formal complaint from a staff member.
"Bemawu had a complaint from a member that the chairperson of the board said in a meeting they should be careful who they talk to because their phones may be listened into by the National Intelligence Agency [NIA]. If this is true, we would be very concerned as it would be illegal to do so.
"The complaint carries weight because the SABC has announced it would be using the NIA [now the domestic arm of the State Security Agency] to vet people."
The Right2Know Campaign and the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting said in its correspondence sent to Tshabalala that the National Key Points Act was repressive and should be scrapped.
"And we agree that it is an expansive secrecy law – how else does one explain why all 10 of the SABC's offices across the country have been declared national key points. But you are invoking repressive measures that go beyond what is imagined in an apartheid-era secrecy law. This is not a good place to be."
While noting that Tshabalala had denied the allegations that she had warned SABC staff they may be under state surveillance, she was asked by the two groups in the letter to her whether she had any reason to believe they may be under state surveillance.
"In any case, we also note that the State Security Agency is now involved in vetting staff," said the organisations. "What state security threats do you face, as the public broadcaster? We look forward to your response, and will continue to campaign against the National Key Points Act and towards a public broadcaster that provides quality content and is free from political interference."
The National Key Points Act, created by apartheid securocrats, empowered the police minister to declare anything he deemed a security risk as a national key point.
Tshabalala told the M&G last week her comments to staff were "taken out of context" and denied she ever told reporters their conversations were being monitored.
SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago and acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng both said it appeared that those who spoke to the M&G had misinterpreted Tshabalala's message.
"She was just reminding them that there were leaks in the organisation and that this was a national key point and that people must be loyal and avoid leaks," said Kganyago.
"As the organisation, we have a problem of leaks and we must protect our organisation because we are a national key point … maybe those who leak felt that they were being monitored."
On Monday, Kganyago said he would have to find out whether Tshabalala had received the letter from the Right2Know Campaign and the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting, and whether she would respond to it.
Tian Oliver, acting chief executive at the SABC, told the M&G he had not heard anything about journalists' phones being tapped. "It is not a company policy and we will not do that type of thing. I have seen no invoice from any company claiming for something like this. But I can't speak for the NIA," said Olivier.