Civil society and the public need to challenge Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s SABC censorship

Motsoeneng's attempt to censor violent news footage took effect during the recent torching, looting and road closures in Tshwane.

Motsoeneng's attempt to censor violent news footage took effect during the recent torching, looting and road closures in Tshwane.

What could the SABC’s acting chief operating officer Hlaudi “Cloudy” Motsoeneng possibly tell the country’s broadcasting regulator to convince it to accept his new censorship policy? The SABC had until last week Friday to provide the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) with reasons for its new policy to censor violent news for viewers in the run-up to the local government August 3 elections.

We now wait to hear the decision. But before it is made there will probably be more public hearings and submissions, which are opportunities for the public to participate and make their views on the policy known.

The new censorship policy took effect during the violence in Tshwane over the past two weeks, which claimed several lives and also included the torching of buses, cars, looting and road closures as well as attacks on seven journalists in one week. 

The violent protests were triggered by the decision of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) to replace Tshwane mayor Kgosientso “Sputla” Ramokgopa with Thoko Didiza as the mayoral candidate for the August 3 local government elections.

In keeping with the new censorship policy, free-to-air SABC viewers were “protected” from the violence while both eNCA and ANN7 on MultiChoice’s DStv did rolling, on-location coverage of the burning story. 

This is the kind of unrest that may spread to other cities in the run-up to the local government elections if certain factions in the ANC continue to deploy their “own” as candidates irrespective of what ANC branches want.

Motsoeneng (who has been ordered to leave his position following a Supreme Court of Appeal judgement) decided on a new policy last month. SABC viewers would not be shown visuals of violent protests because it would lead to more violence, given the nature of people; they “act up” when they see the cameras, Motsoeneng asserted during an eNCA Maggs on Media debate with myself and media lawyer Dario Milo last month.

When challenged, he yelled: “I don’t know what kind of parent you are!” He bellowed other things too: “Everything to you is politics” and “you only know theories”, among others. 

But let’s get serious and deconstruct. 

Motsoeneng’s premise is that the public are children, who need to be protected from seeing things as they are. Milo calmly pointed out that this new censorship policy would be unlawful and in violation of the country’s Broadcasting Act and, also, ironically enough, the SABC’s own licensing conditions and editorial policies. It would also be obviously unconstitutional, given that we have the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000, which supports transparency and the free flow of information. It is on this basis that Media Monitoring Africa, the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, Right2Know and the Freedom of Expression Institute, who have taken the matter to Icasa, have vowed to go right up to the Constitutional Court should the SABC pursue this paternalistic, dark-ages policy.  It is a policy based on madness and the subjectivisation of the South African public. 

Infantilising the public
How do individuals become subjects? By turning towards the voice of power. The voice of control and subjectivising power shows the need for domination and Motsoeneng’s hailing is precisely this. Not only is he attempting to make subjects of his journalists, who are decidedly embarrassed at this stage, but also of the country’s public. 

But it’s all for the good of the country, he pleads with frustration. 

Here, we have an acting chief operating officer governing the public broadcaster way out of the normative range of the ideals, goals and stipulations of the freedom-loving Constitution, but wanting to straightjacket the rest of the public. Today, in South Africa, is it us, the public, who are mad for wanting to know what’s going on in our violent warts-and-all democracy? 

And then 20 years down the line, we will be like those who lived through apartheid who say today: “But we didn’t know.” That’s the Motsoeneng dream. But how will he censor what goes out on social media and the videos of the Tshwane burnings that went viral?

What to do? 
How can we turn away from this subjectivising voice of power and domination? Is there any way to exercise agency? 

First, South Africa does have a strong civil society and a strong independent judiciary, which rules according to the Constitution rather than any executive overstretch, which from time to time tries to claw its way in. We also have media that are thankfully independent of the SABC.

Second, the public can exercise its agency and power by protesting and/or attending Icasa hearings, if there are more to come. We can make submissions to Icasa — after all, the SABC is supposed to be a public body not Motsoeneng’s personal fiefdom. 

Third, the ultimate resistance of course would be to turn off SABC TV during news times. We have to resist the subjectivising voice saying: “Hey, you! … you can’t watch violence.” 

Violence exists and is part of our democracy — not the best part, but it’s there. Diversity of views exist even within one party, as clearly seen now when ANC voters themselves don’t want the NEC’s chosen one for mayor. 

The SABC is not a parent, it is a public broadcaster — but it is making the democratic pathways cloudy and murky. Let’s not allow ourselves to be subjects who are ultimately infantilised. 

Dr Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.


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