SABC denies being summoned by minister

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) denied on Tuesday that it had been summoned to cover an international leprosy conference addressed by Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang in Midrand on Monday.

SABC spokesperson Paul Setsetse said the public broadcaster had broadcast a preview of the conference on Sunday night and it was on its news diary for Monday.

“Whether there was a delay for us to come [to the conference], it is not for us to respond; the organisers of the conference should be spoken to,” he said.

Daily newspaper Business Day reported on Tuesday that Tshabalala-Msimang was scheduled to open the conference, but refused to address more than 150 experts and cured lepers until the SABC had been summoned to the venue.

It said the minister personally phoned the SABC’s head of news, Snuki Zikalala, to ask where the television crew was. Delegates waited for an hour-and-a-half, drinking coffee and being entertained by a choir.

The newspaper, in its The Insider column, said the SABC had decided not to cover the story on Monday because of Sunday’s preview. However, after Tshabalala-Msimang spoke to Zikalala, a reporter and a camerawoman were dispatched to the venue.

The minister reportedly expressed her dismay that the story had not been prioritised.
It also said that after an interview with a Radio 702 reporter, the minister was overheard saying to her aides: “Can you believe that two days ago I knew nothing about leprosy?”

‘Nobody’s business’

Approached for comment on Tuesday, Department of Health spokesperson Charity Bhengu said it had been decided that a statement would be e-mailed to the media on the matter. When contacted again two-and-a-half hours later, she said the statement would no longer be issued to all the media, but only to journalists interested in the story.

Her colleague, Sibani Mngadi, said the department had decided not to comment on the matter.

When asked about the change of mind, Mngadi said he wrote the press releases.

When pressed for comment, he said: “All I can say is the accounts of what happened are totally different to what Business Day and 702 are saying.”

Setsetse said the SABC found it unethical that journalists were reporting on Tshabalala-Msimang’s private conversations.

“First and foremost, we find it extremely unethical and in breach of journalistic ethics to listen to the minister’s private conversation and subsequently write a story on that.”

He said that if Tshabalala-Msimang had spoken to Zikalala, it was “nobody’s business”.

“If they spoke, it was a private conversation; it’s something between them. There is no law that says you cannot have a private conversation.

“It becomes a bit childish when journalists are always brewing a storm in a teacup ... when reporting about the SABC.”

Talk Radio 702 has since said it stands by its reporter and she had at no point acted unethically as her story was based on the fact that she, too, had to wait.

In a statement, the radio station also said that “several insiders confirmed that such a conversation did in fact take place”.

SABC under attack

The SABC has come under attack from political parties accusing it of being a mouthpiece of the ruling African National Congress.

Peter Matlare, the former SABC chief executive, resigned from the post last month following media speculation of a tiff between him and Zikalala, who returned to the broadcaster last year after being a spokesperson for the Department of Labour.

However, Matlare denied Zikalala was the reason for his resignation, saying it was in “line with his career aspirations”.

Matlare had asked to be released before his contract expired in December to take up a position with Vodacom.

The Democratic Alliance said Zikalala ruled with the government’s Cabinet, and SABC viewers had once again been subjected to a ministerial PR exercise.

“Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri may protest as much as she wishes, but the behaviour of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and SABC news and current affairs managing director Snuki Zikalala has confirmed yet again what each expects of the other.

“Minister Matsepe-Casaburri said on Sunday that ‘it would be the height of folly on anyone’s part to demand of the SABC partisan behaviour that would discredit it in the eyes of the population. Such behaviour would be in the interests of neither the ANC nor government, let alone the citizens of our country.’

“Yet this is exactly what the minister of health did, and ... Zikalala was happy to oblige,” DA communications spokesperson Dene Smuts said in a statement.—Sapa

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