/ 2 September 2003

SABC rejects gagging allegations

South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) CEO Peter Matlare has dismissed media allegations that the public broadcaster is attempting to “gag” presenters from discussing politics outside current affairs programmes.

In a statement handed out during Matlare’s media presentation on the SABC’s latest annual report on Tuesday, he said: “There is absolutely no truth to those allegations.”

The issue had been misunderstood, and the public broadcaster had a structure that “few print media understand”, he said.

According to a Moneyweb report on Monday, “a top secret, high-level order” last week saw presenters at all public service radio stations of the SABC barred from discussing politics beyond prescribed news and current affairs programmes.

Moneyweb was said to be in possession of a secret document written by Judy Nwokedi, the SABC’s head of public-service radio, that instructs station managers to enforce the order.

The document reads: “As you are aware, we are heading into the campaign phase of election 2004. This means that various attempts for political jostling will be made by politicians across the country. One case in point is the current Zuma matter. I am therefore instructing all stations to categorically ensure that all programs, content and talkshows that may vie in the direction of political discourse be avoided ABSOLUTELY.”

This follows a report on Moneyweb on Sunday about an internal e-mail at SAfm stated that the presenters could not discuss politics outside of designated current affairs programmes.

The e-mail reads: “As from now, and until further notice, no programme of a ‘political nature’ may be done outside the time allocated to news and current affairs. In particular, this refers to the ‘Zuma affair’ which from now on may only be discussed on CAF programmes.”

It was sent from Mike Roberts, acting station and programme manager.

In his statement on Tuesday, Matlare said the decision around this matter was designed to promote editorial independence, accountability, and fairness, particularly in view of the coming general elections.

“It is not an attempt to interfere with media independence as alleged. These principles are contained in the draft editorial policies that have been published by the SABC.”

The corporation was committed to ensuring fair coverage of all political activities prior to the elections, Matlare said.

TV and radio worked very closely together to ensure viewers’ and listeners’ interests were served.

“But our editorial credibility stands or falls on our independence, and for that reason the news division is a discreet division within the SABC that is guaranteed editorial independence.

“Our editorial team consists of highly experienced and respected individuals who ensure that reporters follow editorial rules when doing stories.

“We have now clarified the SABC position,” Matlare said.

A response by Pippa Green, head of SABC radio news, on Moneyweb on Monday referred to a recent incident in which an Ukhozi FM outside broadcast was turned into an “early election platform for a particular political party”, which led to other parties accusing the SABC of bias.

This incident led to the order issued by Matlare to avoid political discussions — an order that was, according to Green, “misleadingly represented by Moneyweb and in The Citizen … as an attempt to ‘gag’ presenters”.

Noting that the SABC news division is guaranteed editorial independence, Green also said: “On a newspaper an editor … checks out copy in one language once or twice a day before the paper goes to bed. How do you do this on our multistructured platform that produces 212 bulletins and 34 hours of current affairs daily in 13 languages?”

In the run-up to the election, she said that the SABC would be legally obliged “to be fair, to be objective, to seek out response if a party is maligned” and that the order was “designed to promote the independence of news and to ensure editorial fairness”.

She explained that it was difficult to ensure that editorial rules were followed by non-journalists working for the radio stations. Some stations have apparently run interviews with politicians on shows other than news programmes and allowed them to speak for “up to 10 minutes without asking a single question”.

“Far from a gag on presenters, Matlare’s instruction ensures that journalists take charge of reporting news about elections to ensure balance,” she said. – Sapa

  • ‘Top secret’ order limits politics on SABC radio