SABC going for scapegoats

Questions have been raised about whether two SABC News International senior managers, head Saul Pelle and editor Montlenyane Diphoko, are being used as scapegoats after they were suspended and accused of mismanagement and ‘over-expenditure” of R14-million.

The SABC’s former news and current affairs head Snuki Zikalala told the Mail & Guardian he had had R14 million over-expenditure for the 2008/2009 financial year for SABC News International approved by the previous SABC board headed by Khanyi Mkonza.

The R14-million was spent on hiring freelancers to man the New International channel after R42-million budgeted to hire staff was unexpectedly frozen last year — just as the channel was launching its operation 24 hours a day.

When Zikalala returned to work after being suspended for allegedly ‘leaking” information to the ANC, he said he was shocked to find the budget for the staff for the launch had been frozen.

‘I came back to work and discovered that SABC News International had been running on over-expenditure because its staff budget had been frozen,” he said. ‘In October last year I went to the board and then the audit committee and they said to go ahead, because we had to keep the channel running. It is all minuted, so they can’t hide it.”

Designed to make the corporation a pan-African 24-hour broadcaster to the world, the international channel was phased in over three years, running for five hours a day for the pilot project, and then for 24 hours a day from April last year, just as the cutbacks kicked in.

With bureaus in 13 countries, the channel has been described as the ‘sprawling empire” of Zikalala, and has been accused of being a cash-drain.

However, Zikalala said it had been successful as a strategic channel and the ‘biggest player in Africa”, and the only thing holding it back was that the group executive had not managed in two years to strike a deal so it could be carried on MultiChoice.

‘It is totally unfair to blame these guys for the over-expenditure when they froze the budget. I think it is the intention of Robin Nicholson [SABC chief financial officer] and others close to him to shut it down and use BBC and CNN again. It is petty politics and they want to close down SABC News International because of the financial mess they have got into themselves,” he said. ‘This is a great African channel with pan-African content on it. If we had broadcasters at the SABC, and not politicians, they would have the vision to see the growth possibility.”

Launched by former president Thabo Mbeki to support the African Renaissance, SABC News International is dedicated to reporting domestic and international news from an African perspective. Fears are now growing that the failure by group executives to get the channel on to MultiChoice to attract advertisers could lead to its closure.

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said he could not discuss the reasons for the suspension of the two senior managers at SABC News International.

An agreement had not yet been finalised with MultiChoice on SABC News International, said Kganyago, but negotiations were still ongoing.

MultiChoice SA’s general manager of corporate affairs, Jackie Rakitla, said it had not rejected the opportunity to carry SABC News International on its DSTV platform. ‘We have been in ongoing discussions with the SABC,” he said, ‘however the many changes at the SABC have resulted in delays on the decision”.

Lawyer Christine Qunta, who has sat on two SABC boards before resigning this year, said budgets for SABC News International had been properly approved.

‘We agreed to the plan and we did not entertain anything lightly. When the plan for News International was first mooted in 2006, it was discussed in depth — first by the news cluster at management level, then by the group executives who brought it to the board for approval.” said Qunta. ‘At the time we were showing R300-million profit and we approved the progressive opening of SABC News International bureaus.”

Qunta said a deal was meant to be struck with MultiChoice, but group executives failed to close the deal and failed to appoint a dedicated person to market the channel to other countries.

SABC News International is currently broadcast via the Sentech Vivid Satellite Digital Decoder, which enjoys a ‘limited platform”, said Qunta.

‘Group executive had said from the outset that when it becomes a 24-hour news channel it would be run on MultiChoice,” she said.

‘They have been negotiating with MultiChoice for the last two years, but have not yet closed a deal.”

Sources said MultiChoice had wanted to run repeats of SABC soaps that were now lying in the archives as part of the deal, but the SABC was not in favour of this condition.

Three SABC News International bureaus have now been closed, said sources, while others remain open but were operating ‘on a thread”.

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