/ 7 September 2012

SABC journalists say Zuma opponents are silenced

The broadcaster's staff say the pressure on management to censure critics such as Julius Malema
The broadcaster's staff say the pressure on management to censure critics such as Julius Malema

The reporters said the South African Broadcasting Corporation had effectively banned Malema from radio and TV news. This, they claimed, followed an instruction from ANC leaders aligned to the campaign to re-elect president Jacob Zuma as party leader in Mangaung in December.

But Matthews has rejected these claims as "nonsense". He told the Mail & Guardian: "I have not banned anyone. I have no desire or authority to do this. Those who say I did that have their own agenda against me."

Matthews refused to confirm or deny the meeting between himself and political journalists this week.

The M&G has established that senior SABC managers have taken a decision not to broadcast the upcoming Congress of South African Trade Union conference, a move SABC staffers said was intended to muzzle the umbrella organisation's general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who is expected to be openly critical of  Zuma and his administration.

Malema has questioned Zuma's leadership in the past few months, calling for him to be replaced by party deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.

Although the alleged decision to ban Malema has not been officially communicated to staff, SABC sources claimed this week that senior managers, including Matthews, interfered with the work of journalists from time to time to ensure Malema's clips were edited out of the news package before it went on air.   

"No one has told us that he [Malema] was banned, but we can see it in their actions," said one SABC staffer, who asked not be named. "Every time we submit stories, the Malema clips are edited out. This has been happening for a while on TV. The decision is now being implemented on radio as well."

The journalist believes the Malema ban is being orchestrated from Luthuli House. "This is what happened in the run-up to the Polokwane conference, when Zuma and his supporters were given less airtime than former president Thabo Mbeki and his supporters," the reporter said.

"We told [management] it is embarrassing us. We reminded it that the basic principle of journalism is to cover everything that is newsworthy, irrespective of who is involved. Yes, Malema has been expelled from the ANC, but that does not mean we cannot give him coverage, especially when it is so clear that he still enjoys support from ordinary people. The SABC, as a public broadcaster, cannot cover ANC leaders only, but must cover all the people who matter in society."

Another said: "I have always taken Jimi as a genuine newsman, but he has changed. What he is doing now is exactly what Snuki Zikalala [the former SABC head of news] did to him. This is what happens every five years when the ANC goes to conference. But unlike before, when journalists were divided along factional lines, this time all of us are unhappy about what's happening."

Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the higher education minister, who is a close ally of Zuma, was the first senior ANC leader to criticise the SABC's continued coverage of Malema after he was expelled from the ANC.

Factional role
"We must be ashamed of the public broadcaster, because every day there are headlines of people expelled from our movement. You [the SABC] are playing a factional role," he said during the communist party's national conference in July.

In April, Phil Molefe, former head of news at the SABC, was put on special leave for allegedly defying orders from senior executives not to give too much airtime to the ANC factions opposed to Zuma, particularly Malema.

Media academic Anton Harber recently warned in his blog about the danger of not covering Malema because he was now out of favour with the ANC.

"It is extremely dangerous for journalists to start deciding who is or is not newsworthy on the basis that someone is in or out of favour with their party, or loses their official position," he wrote. "The question editors need to ask about Malema is whether his voice still matters, still has resonance, whether he still has followers and influence. If these things start falling away, then coverage should diminish."

The SABC's alleged toned-down coverage became evident during the week of the Marikana killings, when Malema was shown in visuals addressing the mineworkers, but his actual address was not heard. In addition, ANC Youth League deputy president Ronald Lamola said the organisation had lodged a formal  complaint with SABC group chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng about the lack of coverage of youth league leaders.