When Snuki Zikalala, former head of news and current affairs at the SABC, commanded the broadcaster's newsroom to blacklist some political commentators from being interviewed on SABC television or radio six years ago, he set off a firestorm of criticism of the broadcaster.
The Freedom of Expression Institute doggedly took up the cudgels on behalf of the public and pursued the SABC, going from the complaints and compliance committee of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) to the High Court and back. This week, the SABC finally admitted it was wrong.
In a joint statement with the institute, the SABC acknowledged that the conduct of its employees, including Zikalala, was not in compliance with its charter, editorial policies, licence conditions or the code of conduct for broadcasters. The SABC has also agreed to sensible and progressive guidelines on the use of commentators, experts and analysts.
Sadly, since the saga, the SABC's credentials as public censor have been further tarnished. Last week Jimi Matthews, acting head of SABC news and current affairs, directed SABC staff not to use the words "compound" when referring to President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla home or the word "Nkandlagate" when referring to the growing scandal surrounding the upgrading of his private residence.
Matthews, to his credit, has explained that the term compound, when referring to the homes of black people, has racist connotations of mine hostels and servants' quarters. He also explains that the term "Nkandlagate" is lazy journalism.
Well and good. But the real issue is that with three of the four national free-to-air TV stations and 18 radio stations, the SABC has real muscle to investigate issues of public concern.
There can be no greater public concern than the alleged stealing of public funds. The real SABC scandal is not about terminology; it is that it is failing dismally to lead the charge in investigating the Nkandla story for the public benefit, including the ballooning private contractor costs far in excess of normal prices.
Has the SABC:
- Submitted an access to information request to the department of public works for a detailed cost breakdown for Nkandla?
- Asked the minister of defence and war veterans when she (or her predecessor) formally declared Nkandla a national key point in terms of section 2 of the National Key Points Act, 1980?
- Asked the minister why it was necessary for the safety of South Africa or in the public interest to declare a private residence a key point in the first place?
- Asked Parliament why the ministerial handbook, which regulates public spending on members of the Cabinet, appears to have been ignored and what Parliament intends to do about this?
If the answer is no – that the SABC has not made such inquiries – then its caution about racial overtones and lazy journalism rings hollow.
In broadcasting news, legitimacy is primary. Audiences are not fools. As the SABC knows from its dramatic loss in TV viewers, as evidenced by its audience measurement survey figures, South Africans are tuning out. The SABC needs to get off its path of returning to being a state broadcaster and start committing itself to the public by adhering to its charter, licence conditions and editorial policies and guidelines.
Sadly, in the news coverage on the SABC and Freedom of Expression Institute settlement, Icasa has got away scot-free with its dismal failure to intervene and protect the public interest in the initial blacklisting saga. The high court was scathing about Icasa's complaints and compliance committee. It set aside the committee's refusal to deal with the matter and instructed it to reconsider the institute's complaint.
It is unfortunate that the committee, because of the settlement, did not have to do that. Icasa, too, has a long way to go towards restoring public confidence in its ability to police the SABC and protect our interest in the free flow of vital information.
Justine Limpitlaw is an independent electronic communications lawyer and Kate Skinner is a broadcasting policy analyst. They are on the working group of the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition. The views expressed here are their own