The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board has moved to suspend CEO Solly Mokoetle, it emerged on Tuesday after the Western Cape High Court overruled attempts by Parliament to hold a briefing on the latest trouble at the public broadcaster behind closed doors.
“They [the board] have served him with a legal letter with the intention to suspend him and he has been given an ‘x’ number of days — exactly how many days I don’t know — to respond to the letter to explain why he should not be suspended,” said Ismail Vadi, the chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications.
Vadi was speaking to reporters after the media won an interdict preventing the committee from continuing with an in-camera meeting with the SABC on renewed strife at the broadcaster, a mere eight months after Mokoetle and the new board took up their positions.
The ruling was handed down as an interim order shortly before noon by Acting Judge Sven Olivier, following an urgent application by the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).
It came after the committee allowed SABC chairperson Ben Ngubane — who has fallen out with commissioners — to deliver a submission defending his position.
“He expressed very serious concerns about the disfunctionality of the board and he cited a whole number of examples which he had experienced which contributed towards the state of disfunctionality.”
Following the court order, Vadi decided to suspend the meeting with the SABC indefinitely, rather than proceed and allow the press to attend.
He said he needed to discuss the way forward with Parliament.
“I think we still need to confer with the speaker’s office and the leadership of Parliament about the implications of the judgement because this has a bearing on the functioning of Parliament as a whole and on other committees.”
Vadi said the meeting remained urgent because members of the legislature were perturbed by the problems besetting the SABC.
These were brought to a head by Mokoetle’s decision to name Phil Molefe as head of news without the agreement of the board. Ngubane’s backing for the appointment further soured relations between him and commissioners.
“It is a matter of very serious concern to the committee, that is why we summoned the board to appear before the committee,” Vadi said.
He decided last week to close most of the meeting to the press, for fear of the legal implications of having somebody’s reputation and position challenged in public.
Sanef had on Monday through its lawyers asked the committee to open the meeting, but the committee decided on Tuesday morning that the session would stay closed to the public and media.
Sanef lawyers were in the Western Cape High Court as the meeting got under way. When the committee failed to give an undertaking to suspend the meeting while the application was being heard, they asked Acting Judge Olivier for the order.
In his ruling handed down just before noon, Olivier ordered that the committee not proceed with any sitting from which the public, including the media, were excluded.
This order would be valid until “the final determination of this matter”.
The ruling came amid an increasingly tense stand-off between the media and government over a perceived attack on media freedom, weighted around the Protection of Information Bill and the ANC’s proposal for a media tribunal that reports to Parliament.
In an affidavit filed in support of Sanef’s court application, the forum’s secretary general, Gaye Davis, said there was a clear public interest in the meeting.
“The SABC is resourced with public funds, and the public has a clear interest in its functioning and a right to information concerning the affairs of the SABC,” she said.
“As a corollary, the media has a right and indeed an obligation to report on the functioning and affairs of the SABC.”
Idasa sent a letter to Vadi on Tuesday criticising the committee’s bid to hold the meeting in camera before the court ruling was made.
“The problems within the SABC have persisted and holding a closed meeting simply creates the perception that facts are being withheld from the public.”
Idasa said Parliament was obliged by section 59 of the Constitution to “conduct its business in an open manner, and hold its sittings and those of its committees in public”.
Attempting to hold the SABC briefing behind closed doors could set a dangerous precedent, it warned.
“Idasa is concerned that closing the meeting will set an unhealthy precedent which other committees may in future also follow, thereby leading to a culture of exclusion and secrecy within Parliamentary committees.” — Sapa