SABC’s 24-hour news channel launch ‘premature’

The Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo) has criticised the launch of the public broadcaster’s 24-hour news channel on Thursday, saying it was "premature".

"[The] SABC for almost two decades has stumbled from one form of leadership crisis to the other," it said in a statement.

"Azapo calls on our people not to support this channel because it is our taxes that will be used in bailing it out when it sinks."

Azapo was further worried about subjective political reporting ahead of the general election next year.

The organisation alleged the broadcaster would use its resources to "suppress other parties contesting ANC rule".

"We further call on all political organisations to put more pressure on how [the] SABC treats other political organisations."

In response to criticism from the Democratic Alliance's national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane, SABC acting group executive of news Jimi Matthews, a veteran broadcaster and former anti-apartheid activist, said: "I am not quite sure where it comes from that the channel could be used as a propaganda tool".

"I am not sure how it would be any different to the operation I oversee at present. It is not like a 24-hour channel is a beast on its own. It still resides in the newsroom, with all the same management team, and all checks and balances. How it would somehow become a tool for some political entity confounds me a bit."

A ‘welcome change’
The Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa) has lauded the launch of the channel as a "welcome change".

"It is an exciting moment for South Africa after years of Gauteng-centric focus," it said in a statement. "Competition will be rife and the SABC needs to fast shed the jet-lag from years of inertia and internal strife."

It said the public broadcaster would need to offer a "different staple of news" from the "overly-politicised diet".

Matthews is adamant there is no ulterior motive in launching the 24-hour satellite channel. With the advent of its new channel, the public broadcaster was expanding as it should, he said, and nothing had been rushed.

"The reality is that if the SABC is not playing in the 24-hour news space, it is left behind," he explained. 

"Very few people are still satisfied waiting for bulletins in the evening. Previously, it was appointment viewing, where you rushed home to watch the 8pm news. While we see continuous growth in radio news offerings, digitial sites are exploding in growth. There is a decline in the television news service. If you are going to produce television news, you have to play in the 24-hour space." 

The notion that SABC's 24-hour satellite channel was an exercise to catch the run-up to the general election was far from the truth, said Matthews.

"You will recall that six months back, we had prepared to launch, but we shut down the project. The desire and need to do a 24-hour news channel has always been there," he said. "But now we have a new deal with DStv and we had the necessary finance to do the show."

MultiChoice deal
Last week, the Mail & Guardian exposed the details of the new contract the SABC has signed with MultiChoice, which reveals that MultiChoice Africa will pay the SABC a fee of R553-million over five years.

Leading the project is acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who told the M&G this week that the deal he had struck was a huge improvement on the last contract it signed with MultiChoice for its 24-hour satellite channel.

"Last time the contract gave us R80-million over three and a half years," he said. "I negotiated the new contract and it is good news for the SABC."

Balanced news
But Motsoeneng has always maintained he is merely trying to achieve a balance in the news. Whether the SABC will be able to pull off the balance of news in the run-up to the elections remains to be seen.

While some broadcasters have claimed eNCA requires R250-million to R300-million a year for its 24-hour news channel, Matthews described this as a "mythical figure".

"Believe me, if someone gave me R250-million to do what we are doing, we would be flying," he said. "No really, we would be partying in the park."

Matthews said this kind of talk was just another attempt to cast a shadow over the SABC deal. 

"What we want to do is tell the story of this country, across the board. Not just an urban focus, which media houses actively focus on. We are hoping not to be ambulance chasers and drive a sensational story," said the broadcaster. "So what we really have is the one differentiator, which is that we will broadcast in all languages and go to all the corners of this country." – Additional reporting by Glynnis Underhill

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