/ 16 April 2014

SABC political bias will backfire

R2K was outraged that the show was being cancelled before its second season could be aired.
R2K was outraged that the show was being cancelled before its second season could be aired.

During the Zimbabwean elections last year, the country's state broadcaster, the ZBC, flighted the ruling party's inflammatory adverts. Newscasters and reporters prefixed the names of Zanu-PF leaders with the title "comrade", whereas the coverage of opposition leaders was shabby and distorted.

The SABC is far better than its Zimbabwean counterpart. It has credible men and women who just want to practise professional, ethical – journalism. They want to present news that is fair, balanced and truthful. But their efforts are hindered by those on the board and in management who see the SABC as ZBC-like – a mouthpiece of the ruling party. They don't see their role as a buffer between politicians and journalists, or the protectors of the latter. They see their role as cheerleaders of the ruling party.

The chairperson of the board, Zandile Ellen Tshabalala, and her predecessor, Khanyi Mkhonza, tacitly threatened journalists by invoking the apartheid-era National Key Points Act. Acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng has apparently commandeered the newsroom, telling editors and journalists what and what not to put out. A Democratic Alliance advert was pulled for irrational political reasons.

These board members and executives have taken over where their predecessors left off.  They are more loyal to politicians than to the public, a direct dereliction of their fiduciary duty. Like their predecessors, they will soon be out, but will leave behind much damage to the broadcaster's credibility.

Appointing good executives and board members did not help. They were forced out for steering the broadcaster in the right direction.

The problem is the current structure of the public broadcaster. Board members and the chief executive serve at the pleasure of politicians, and thus feel pressure to interfere. It was worse under the National Party, but the ANC has also tasted and enjoyed the power of controlling the broadcaster.

Unless the structure changes completely (even though there is no perfect structure), there is no guarantee that this vicious cycle will not continue after the current ruling party. But these executives and board members, and the leaders of the ANC, are naive not to realise that they will benefit from good ­journalism way beyond their term of office.