Civil society organisations are challenging the SABC’s decision to restrict its protest coverage, but it’s unclear what effect the partial ban will have on the millions who tune into the public broadcaster’s radio stations.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition (Sosa) and the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) have launched a legal challenge with the complaints compliance committee of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa over the SABC’s decision. The organisations argue that the public broadcaster is in clear violation of the Broadcasting Act, the SABC’s licence conditions and its editorial policies.
One of the group’s concerns is the effect “the decision will have for ordinary South Africans and their right to freedom of expression and access to information”.
The SABC made headlines after announcing it would not air violent protests. It said, although reporters would be on the ground to cover protests, it would not air footage of “the destruction of public property during protests”.
Radio and television are South Africa’s most commonly used mediums for news and entertainment. About 12.3-million radio listeners rely solely on the public broadcaster for news.
According to a recent radio audience measurement survey (Rams), the SABC had 28.9-million listeners in December last year, 42.6% of whom tuned in exclusively to its radio stations.
The numbers underscore the SABC’s importance.
“The decision has clear negative implications for media freedom and yet we have been given no indication that the decision followed due process,” said the MMA’s director, William Bird.
The SOS said the broadcaster “has to be fair”.
The SABC’s chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who is pushing the ban, was recently appointed the SABC editor-in-chief.
Sekoetlane Phamodi, the SOS’s co-ordinator, said the protest policy will stick in light of his appointment.
The organisation said the SABC’s editorial policies will be harder to challenge with Motsoeneng now handling all internal complaints regarding editorial decisions.
Kaizer Kganyago, the spokesperson for the SABC, said the public broadcaster will “continue to give people the whole story” when it comes to protests.
“How can they [civil society organisations] say it will affect our audience?” he asked. “Is it because they disagree with us? We have numbers that will never lie.”
In a week in December last year, 92% of South Africans watched television. Nine out of 10 of them watched one of the SABC channels, according to the broadcaster’s all media and products survey (AMPS).
Bird said the numbers show that the country has a long way to go towards developing accessible and diverse media.
Although editorial policies affect what audiences consume or don’t consume, Bird believes that people are much smarter than the SABC thinks.
“The SABC is in danger of losing its credibility to the extent that people simply won’t believe what they hear. That’ll happen when if what they’re seeing and hearing on the radio simply doesn’t tally with their reality,” he said.