Guide dogs, not watchdogs

Ferial Haffajee spoke to Thami Mazwai, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board member, about blacklists, canned documentaries and the coverage of presidents.

Do you feel proud when you watch the 7pm bulletin?

Yes, extremely proud. They’ve given a new dimension to our coverage of news. The head of news, Snuki Zikalala, has a sense of mission in which he’s transforming the mindset of how news is projected.

How?

Our approach is developmental journalism. Rather than be attack dogs or lapdogs, we are guide dogs. We emphasise development, which is news that assists people in improving themselves. For instance, we would tell them of the services available to them; how they can improve their lives; what government is doing or not doing for them.

My view is that the government is covered by announcement rather than by context or news value. I don’t feel a sense of pride.

What do you mean by context and announcement?

If the school-feeding scheme is collapsing, if welfare grants are corrupted, if the president is criticised, there is every chance you won’t see it on the SABC.

The SABC does not lack in investigation. Special Assignment is in a class of its own. Nobody has done as much as that programme to expose things and even those affecting government. And let’s not forget it reports to Snuki Zikalala.

I would caution against drawing conclusions from one newscast. The best way to judge our coverage of pertinent issues affecting our society is by looking at the spread and over a period.

Do you think commentators should be vetted?

There’s currently a commission of inquiry into the so-called blacklist, so there’s not much I can say. However, I am a former editor and know all news organisations have people they will interview or will not interview. They choose not to interview people for a variety of reasons, one being that the person is repeating the same old views or pushing an agenda. Nobody has the right to be used as a commentator come rain, come shine.

As a board member, you’ve written to the press to back the SABC’s decision to can a documentary about President Thabo Mbeki, citing legal advice that it was defamatory. The legal advice was sought after the fact. Surely, this undermines the good faith of that decision?

The editors were uncomfortable and canned the programme, but as it affected the president and would be public, they referred the matter to the CEO Dali Mpofu. Mpofu consulted lawyers and they confirmed it is defamatory. He confirmed a decision already taken by the editors.

You’ve written that the SABC must be careful about how it projects the presidency. Why?

I should have said the media instead of the SABC. The integrity of our country is vested in the president. People’s perception of the country, more so investors and tourists, is based on, among other things, perceptions of the president. If he is corrupt, so is the country, in their view … If there is an allegation against the president, let it be true rather than speculative, if it must be used in an in-depth piece or documentary.

How careful should the SABC be?

If a statement impugns the character [of the president] the media must only publish if it has been tested in a court of law.

Recently Cosatu [Congress of South African Trade Unions] said the president had constructed a presidency with dictatorial tendencies. The SACP [South African Communist Party] said virtually the same thing. Should this not be reported on the SABC?

That’s hard news. You broadcast such attacks. What I’m talking about is an opinion piece and if an opinion piece is carried on the public broadcaster it gives it more weight. Secondly, publishing untested allegations merely results in the further stereotyping of Africa.

Tony Leon, Pat de Lille, the Inkatha Freedom Party have called the president all sorts of things. That’s the cut and thrust of democracy. And the public broadcaster has covered it without fear.

The Nigerian and Kenyan heads of state are covered robustly. In Nigeria, the media is credited with providing a platform of resistance to Olusegun Obasanjo’s efforts to secure a third term, which is widely regarded as good for Nigeria.

We’ve got to differentiate between hard news pieces and opinion. The Kenyan and Nigerian scenarios were hard news or running stories. In any case, the Kenyan government has integrity laws [which make it an offence to insult the president].

The SABC documentary took several months to research and edit … the least you expect is for them to have done their checking and counter-checking thoroughly.

I’ve seen the documentary and there’s nothing in it that anyone didn’t know.

That’s your view. Untested allegations which impugn the integrity of the president should not be published. In fact, this should also apply to our chief justice, the head of police, the head of the army and the speaker of Parliament … for the reasons given above.

Snuki Zikalala has come under a lot of criticism recently. Given that the board appointed him, do you think he’s doing a good job?

He is doing a good job. Every six months CEO Dali Mpofu measures him on the basis of this performance contract.

We will not be told by our direct and indirect competitors who to hire or fire. They naturally want us to fire our more able people so that they get the upper hand in the market.

What I find disconcerting is that one of the allegations is that he’s ANC [African National Congress]. What’s that got to do with the price of mealie meal? … The head of news will be accused of being pro-ANC, pro-DA [Democratic Alliance], simply because he or she is head of news. Everybody wants a piece of the SABC to further their agenda.

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