/ 5 September 2007

SABC under fire after breaking ranks

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been accused of systematic pro-government bias after taking a different stance from most fellow journalists in coverage of the controversial health minister.

Such allegations against the SABC mounted after its chief executive, Dali Mpofu, sent a resignation letter to the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) charging that the media had behaved “shamefully” in much of their recent reporting on Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, accused of having a drink problem and a theft conviction.

“Shame on all of you, especially those who have turned their backs on your own cultural values for 30 pieces of silver, pretending to be converted to foreign, frigid and feelingless ‘freedoms’,” wrote Mpofu in a weekend letter made public by the SABC.

The SABC said it would no longer stand idle “whilst we are being made a whipping boy and a scapegoat by the profit-driven media. Even less are we prepared to associate with the enemies of our freedom and our people”, adding: “We cannot remain quiet while our mothers and our democratically chosen leaders are stripped naked for the sole purpose of selling newspapers.”

Mpofu’s attack infuriated Sanef, which believes such reports have been entirely justified and made comparisons with the whites-only apartheid era when SABC was little more than a tool of propaganda.

Close link with government

Anton Harber, professor of journalism at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, said Mpofu had employed “the language of government, not of journalists … Why is the SABC defending the health minister? It is not appropriate.”

According to Harber, the letter highlighted a “distressingly close” link with the government which was “weakening our democracy”, given that the SABC was by far the biggest media organisation with 18 radio and three terrestrial television channels.

It is not the first time the SABC has made its own headlines in recent months.

An internal report in October revealed how certain anti-government commentators had been effectively barred from the airwaves.

The SABC also faced accusations of being too government-friendly after repeatedly refusing to run a mildly critical documentary about South African President Thabo Mbeki, even though it had commissioned the programme.

No one from the SABC was available to comment.

‘No professionalism’

The Democratic Alliance (DA) said the latest episode showed the SABC had abandoned “all pretence at professionalism and impartiality”.

“Instead of holding the minister to account, the SABC has been showing … the minister sitting beautifully dressed and coiffured at her desk, apparently in full command of her faculties and portfolio, smiling like a movie star,” said DA communications spokesperson Dene Smuts.

She added: “If it is true that the minister has a problem with alcohol consumption, then the public has a right to be informed.”

Tshabalala-Msimang herself seems happy enough with the public broadcaster, shooing away reporters from the private e.tv network by telling them she only spoke to the SABC.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said it shared some of the SABC’s concerns about the coverage of Tshabalala-Msimang but warned its stance also smacked of bias.

“When other public figures such as ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma or Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi were subjected to personal attacks in the media similar to those recently launched against the minister of health, there was no word of condemnation from the SABC,” it said. “It seems the SABC is only stung into condemning gutter journalism when a government minister is its victim, but keeps silent when it is someone they oppose politically.”

Allister Sparks, a former SABC head of news, said the problems stem from the make-up of the board. “The board is selected by a parliament portfolio committee … They are deliberately picking up people favourable to the ruling party,” he said.

An editorial this week in the Times daily recalled how the SABC had worked hand in glove with the apartheid authorities and bemoaned that “history was repeating itself” under Mpofu.

“It is not as bad as it was, but it’s going in this direction,” said Sparks. – AFP