Debate with Snuki

Developments in the political arena - from the Jacob Zuma issue, Oilgate, the crisis in service delivery, and the upcoming local government elections to the leaking of documents from the National Intelligence Agency - have raised political temperatures and thrown into sharp focus questions of media freedom. One of these developments is a particular cause for concern. The Oilgate scandal, in which the police appear keen to confidential wring information from the Mail & Guardian and its internet host MWeb, is a case in point.

In the Oilgate case we could have a violation of the principle of confidentiality of sources, which will potentially cripple the media in its investigations of corruption and wrongdoing going forward. While a delicate balance has to be struck between the sanctity of sources and the protection of individual rights and/or state security, such a balance must ideally be weighted in favour of the public’s right to know.

Advancing the public’s right to know is a fundamental democratic tenet - something that a public broadcaster like the SABC must not only strive to achieve, but be seen (on TV) and heard (on radio) to uphold. Recently the SABC appeared to be struggling with this principle when it failed to broadcast a tape of the new deputy president being booed by sections of an audience at a Woman’s Day rally. Although a commission absolved the SABC of bias or censorship, larger questions around its independence remain unanswered. (Although to be fair it has in recent days shown pictures of T-shirts with President Mbeki’s image being burnt, as well as visuals of the groundswell of support for Zuma).

It was in the middle of some of these developments that I had a debate at the Harold Wolpe Lecture Series with Dr Snuki Zikalala, managing director of SABC news and current affairs. Zikalala has of course been accused in the print media of being an ANC plant, accusations he has forcefully denied - he is even suing a newspaper to this end. So it is worth narrating here some of the key issues that emerged from the debate.

My central point was that public service broadcasting is both a value and a practice. In the South African context, the Constitution, the Broadcasting Act, the editorial charter of the SABC and Icasa all guarantee the independence of the public broadcaster - these documents and institutions theoretically protect the SABC from editorial or programming interference arising out of any vested interests, including the government’s and the ruling party’s. But in practice interference can happen in subtle ways, such as through the appointment of managers and journalists who sing from the song-sheets of politicians and advertisers.

A key area in the debate was the question of diversity of voices, as reflected in news bulletins. Zikalala heavily emphasised the importance of covering development-orientated stories, which show how government and big business are improving the lives of millions of South Africans marginalised by the apartheid dispensation. I countered that it was also important to include news that dwelt on issues of corruption, accountability and freedom of expression - because, again, the public expects that a genuine public broadcaster will be confident, independent from all interests (including politicians’ and advertisers’) and give access to all views.

I further pointed out that the SABC has a somewhat limited television news output, which is circumscribed by advertising and ends up being just 20 minutes of politics, business and sport in the main news bulletin. Zikalala argued that neither advertisers nor politicians influence the news, as the SABC strictly adheres to the editorial charter. He also insisted that covering positive developments around delivery and the African continent are the most important criteria for him. I found it difficult to agree. There’s a cause for serious concern in Zikalala’s insistence on positive coverage: it will result in covering officialdom, something the late Zimbabwean journalist Willie Musarurwa called “minister and sunshine journalism”.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies at Wits University.

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