/ 20 July 2007

New SABC channel starts amid bias furore

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is launching an international news channel to compete with CNN and the BBC, joining the growing ranks of news outlets seeking to challenge media stereotypes about Africa.

But media watchdogs say the SABC should focus on bolstering editorial independence at home after charges of political meddling harmed its credibility and revived memories of its days as a propaganda machine for apartheid.

SABC International, which has seven bureaux in Africa, Europe and the United States, wants to provide more positive coverage from Africa to counter the tales of poverty and woe that dominate Western news about the continent.

”We are establishing bureaux with our own correspondents, reporting on the spot, on the scene in a more balanced way,” SABC’s head of news, Snuki Zikalala, told SABC radio on Friday as the international channel was officially launched.

The channel will compete with established Western broadcasters such as CNN and BBC, as well as newly launched CNBC Africa and al-Jazeera’s English channel, which has also pledged to provide broader, more positive coverage of Africa.

But the launch comes as SABC, once the mouthpiece of the apartheid government, faces criticism about its editorial independence after it allegedly banned programmes and commentators critical of the ANC government.

Some media commentators say SABC International risks promoting pro-government bias on a continent already struggling with limited media freedom.

”In principle it’s important to have home-grown news organisations telling the African story … but Rome is burning at the SABC and they are expanding their empire at a time when they have serious editorial problems,” Jane Duncan, head of South Africa’s Freedom of Expression Institute, told Reuters.

The SABC has ignited controversy by dropping documentaries about President Thabo Mbeki, and several high-profile journalists quit after the broadcaster allegedly blacklisted political commentators critical of the president.

The SABC has denied such a blacklist exists and took out a full-page advertisements in Sunday newspapers last year to counter charges of government interference in editorial operations.

The broadcaster says it wants to highlight stories of growth and progress in Africa and to promote the continent’s home-grown economic recovery programme, Nepad (New Partnership for Africa’s Development).

But many commentators say the SABC is too soft on African leaders, particularly South Africa’s own, and say it lacks the critical edge of independent competitor e.tv.

”There is a growing concern about editorial integrity at SABC and it risks exporting that on to the African continent,” said Duncan.

SABC International has foreign bureaux in Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Washington, Brussels, New York, Senegal and Nigeria. It is planning to open newsrooms in Jamaica, China, Brazil and Zimbabwe.


Meanwhile, the Mail & Guardian has been gagged. Again. In the early hours of Friday morning in the Pretoria High Court, Judge Lettie Molopa interdicted the M&G from publishing the details of an explosive final draft of an internal report into alleged corruption, abuse of power and intimidation at the SABC.

The judge granted an interim interdict against the M&G preventing the newspaper from printing its front-page lead. The interdict was brought by Barry Aaron & Associates on behalf of his client in a matter related to the SABC.

Barry Aaron & Associates was objecting to the publication of an article related to an internal audit report, which contains a long list of damning allegations, including financial irregularity, intimidation and violation of the Public Finance Management Act and SABC internal policy.

It argued that its client had not seen the audit report, which the SABC had not given to him, and therefore its client did not have sufficient opportunity to respond meaningfully to the allegations as presented to him by the M&G. The firm also took issue with the amount of time the M&G gave its client to respond. The report landed at the M&G’s door on Thursday morning, the day the newspaper publishes.

The M&G argued that it was not the newspaper’s responsibility to give Aaron’s client the full audit report, but rather present the essence of the allegations, which the M&G intended to publish in order to seek comment.

The M&G also argued that the newspaper took all reasonable steps to enable Aaron’s client to respond to the allegations. The M&G first contacted SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago who, as per SABC policy, spoke on behalf of SABC employees. Kganyago then contacted Aaron’s client, who contacted the M&G.

However, rather than taking the opportunity to respond, Aaron’s client remained silent, and less than an hour before print deadline Aaron sent an SMS to the M&G saying he was taking legal action and warned the M&G that it ”print and/or [distribute] at [its] peril”. He gave no indication of why the M&G should not publish and only served unsigned papers at 7.30pm on Thursday.