/ 14 April 2009

SABC pulls Special Assignment doccie on Zuma, Zapiro

A week and a day ahead of the April 22 elections, the SABC has cancelled an episode of <em>Special Assignment</em> dealing with satire.

A week and a day ahead of the April 22 elections, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has cancelled an episode of its Special Assignment programme dealing with satire and cartoon strips.

”The Special Assignment episode that was to be broadcast tonight [Tuesday] has been cancelled under legal advice,” the national broadcaster said in a statement on Tuesday.

The episode, scheduled to be broadcast on Tuesday evening, examined ”the use of satire and cartoon strips as an editorial tool within the South African media landscape”.

However, legal advisers had said they needed more time to study its subject matter and advise on this.

”The show will now be replaced with a rebroadcast of Dik Getik, which focuses on drug abuse in the Western Cape.

The show was first broadcast earlier this year,” the SABC said.

Late last year it was reported that African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma was suing cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro — better known as Zapiro, the Sunday Times and its holding company for R7-million over a controversial cartoon published earlier in 2008.

In the cartoon, Zapiro portrayed Zuma unbuckling his belt as he prepares to rape the figurative Lady Justice.

She is held down by Zuma allies Julius Malema, Gwede Mantashe, Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi.

Mantashe eggs Zuma on: ”Go for it, boss!”

While Zuma’s allies claimed the cartoon was intended to project the ANC president as a rapist — even though Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006 — Shapiro said the central meaning of the cartoon was ”incredibly clear”.

”It showed Jacob Zuma, with the help of his political allies, threatening and intimidating the judiciary to try to manipulate the courts for him to be exonerated and escape going on trial [for corruption], thus paving the way for Zuma to become president,” said Zapiro.

He said he used Lady Justice to represent the South African judicial system, adding that the figure is recognised as a symbol of justice the world over.

In a statement at the time, the ANC, South African Communist Party and ANC Youth League said they deplored the Sunday Times‘s abuse of press freedom by publishing a ”disgusting cartoon” that ”borders on defamation of character and insults the integrity of the secretary general of the ANC, comrade Gwede Mantashe, and alliance leaders”.

‘Not particularly surprised’
Of the pulling of Tuesday’s Special Assignment episode, Zapiro told the Mail & Guardian Online: ”I am angry, but not particularly surprised.

”This confirms yet again how spineless the top echelons of the SABC are. They are totally unbothered by notions of freedom of expression; they don’t have much regard for freedom of expression.

”They aren’t willing to let people make hard-hitting programmes or even analytical programmes about hard-hitting satire.

”This programme was not satire itself, but was analysing satire. It was an overarching thing about the sorts of satire that I and other satirists and comedians have been doing.

”Whether the programme would run or not hinged on the two lawsuits Jacob Zuma has against me and the news clips the producers wanted to include in the programme.”

”The lawsuits and the shower on the head have become issues at the SABC,” Zapiro said.

In 2006 Zapiro was sued by Zuma in a R15-million defamation lawsuit for the cartoonist’s depictions of the ANC leader around the time of his rape trial. Zapiro attached a shower to the head of the image of the ANC president, a reference to Zuma’s statement during the trial that he took a shower to reduce the risk of HIV infection after having sex with his accuser.

Zapiro said he has heard absurd things about the shower on the head image. He heard about an internal screening at the SABC, where the broadcaster refused to allow the parts of the news pilot programme that features the shower on the head to be shown.

He said the shower on the head has become ”much bigger than I imagined. I have tried to make the shower more than the silly comment that came out of the rape trial and have been able to use it in many different ways, like I did this past week in two cartoons I did.”

Zapiro said he ”commends the producers of the episode, who were doing their best to put up something that is risky and taking a hard look at difficult issues; who were prepared to run some funny and potentially offensive footage.

”There was always going to be an uphill battle with the powers that be at the SABC,” he added.

‘Climate of timidity’
”It’s extremely disappointing that the SABC has taken the decision to pull Special Assignment’s programme. It shows the climate of timidity and deference for authority is continuing at the SABC,” Jane Duncan from the Freedom of Expression Institute said.

”In the past this deference was in relation to Thabo Mbeki and now it’s in relation to Jacob Zuma.

”The reason given by the SABC that the programme is defamatory is not strong enough. The enquiry shouldn’t stop there. They [the SABC] still have to prove that none of the available defences of truthfulness, reasonableness or public interest apply.

”It’s quite worrying that the SABC has taken a decision of this nature prior to the elections. What we need is a robust public broadcaster ahead of the elections — not one that shies away from controversy and political satire, the latter of which has been controversial recently and the SABC is doing itself a disservice to prevent the controversy from being aired.

”It’s difficult to say not having viewed the programme, but I’ve seen the promo and it strikes me as an investigative piece that’s in the public interest.

”To justify pulling such a piece the SABC would have to prove that the documentary is incurably defamatory and that none of the defences to defamation are available, which is difficult to believe given the content of this documentary.

Duncan added that the SABC’s decision raises questions as to whether South Africa is going to have a healthy public broadcaster over the voting period, which is critical for democratic elections.

Click here to go to the Zapiro page on the M&G Online