Concern at political interference in media

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) is “gravely concerned” about seemingly increasing political interference in the South African media, the institute’s executive director, Ayesha Kajee, said on Wednesday.

The newly appointed Kajee said in a statement she was especially concerned about allegations of political interference at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as the national broadcaster, and at renewed calls from various political actors to establish a media tribunal.

It was recently reported that the acting head of news at the SABC, Phil Molefe, had banned senior news executives from using interviews with former president Thabo Mbeki, after an interview with him was screened during the Soccer World Cup. These reports said that Mbeki’s appearance on SABC television undermined ANC leader Jacob Zuma.

The SABC denied these allegations, but its board said it would investigate the matter.

“Given the right to a free press enshrined in the South African Constitution, both developments appear to signal a disturbing trend towards greater political control of the news media, and merit public scrutiny and debate,” said Kajee.

Kajee said the recent incident at the SABC had similarities with the blacklisting saga of 2006/07, where former head of news Snuki Zikalala banned certain political commentators—perceived to be critical of Mbeki—from being interviewed on the national broadcaster.

Kajee said while the FXI welcomed the SABC board’s promise to fully investigate the new allegations, these developments appeared to indicate that censorship continued to be a problem at the public broadcaster.

“The SABC has a mandate to represent the full spectrum of South African society, in a manner that is free from political or other bias,” she said.

“To ensure that the public broadcaster does not become diluted into a state organ subject to the whims of those in political power, it is critical that the SABC withstands pressures that may result in censorship and that the board strongly defend the broadcaster’s independence.”

Calls for a media tribunal
She said individuals within the ruling tripartite alliance had recently used a number of seemingly unrelated issues in the media as fuel to resuscitate calls for the formation of a media tribunal to regulate the press.

These included allegations of media bias around the investigation and trial of former police commissioner Jackie Selebi, convicted last month on corruption charges; the revelation by former Cape Argus political journalist Ashley Smith that he received payment for writing favourably slanted reports about then-Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool; and an artist’s depiction of former president Nelson Mandela as a corpse.

Kajee said the concept of a media tribunal was first proposed at the ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane, as the ruling party felt the major media companies in the country were “hostile” towards it and that the self-regulation of the media via the Office of the Press Ombudsman was insufficient.

The proposal was slated by media practitioners as being a move towards state intervention and control of the media.

“It must be noted here that neither journalists nor politicians can operate without accountability and that neither group is above the law,” Kajee said.

She said the possibility of either strengthening the existing Press Ombudsman or the establishing of a truly independent media tribunal merited consideration and a public debate.

“In either case, independence must be safeguarded by ensuring that there is no direct regulation by the state or the commercial media,” she said.—Sapa

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