Former SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng on Wednesday confirmed that he warned journalists that management would be “cleaning up the organisation” of people “doing their own stuff”.
During the second day of his testimony before the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, Motsoeneng confirmed evidence given by members of the so-called SABC 8.
The SABC 8 was the name given to a group of journalists who lost their jobs, allegedly for speaking out against censorship of protest footage.
The eight were Vuyo Mvoko, Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki, Suna Venter, Lukhanyo Calata, Jacques Steenkamp and Busisiwe Ntuli, Foeta Krige and Krivani Pillay.
During their testimony before the commission, Krige and Pillay alleged that the former COO warned that those who questioned management would lose their jobs.
Last week, Pillay told the commission — chaired by Deputy Chief Raymond Zondo — that in a meeting Motsoeneng said: “We are cleaning up the organisation of people are doing their own stuff. There are many journalists outside that want to work for the SABC. The environment outside is bad. No person within the SABC is independent. The SABC is independent. This is the new SABC.”
Motsoeneng confirmed that he had said this at the meeting, adding that he did not see anything wrong with telling the journalists to “adapt or find work elsewhere.”
The meeting — which was also attended by Krige, then SABC acting group chief executive Jimi Matthews and then acting head of news Simon Tebele — was called shortly after the SABC had issued a statement announcing its decision not to cover violent protests. The decision became known as the “protest policy”.
Two days before the meeting, The Editors show on SAFM — for which Pillay was a producer — discussed and criticised the decision. “Unfortunately that did not go down well with Motsoeneng,” Pillay said.
Pillay, Krige and other members of the SABC 8 were eventually suspended.
The suspension notices sent to Krige, Venter and Gqubule-Mbeki read: “It has come to management’s attention that you have allegedly refused to comply with an instruction pertaining to the provisions of the SABC editorial policy as well as the directive not to broadcast visuals / audio of the destruction of property during protest action(s) and that you distance yourself from the instruction.”
On Wednesday, Motsoeneng distanced himself from the decision to suspend the journalists, saying this was up to Tebele.
“On a light note, Simon Tebele, who was the head of news … He said, hey chief: ‘Blood on the floor.’ He said, ‘These people they defy me’,” Motsoeneng said, explaining that the expectation was that Tebele would deal with the journalists working under him.
“I can only charge or discipline people who report directly to me,” he said.
Motsoeneng also refuted the allegation that the so-called protest policy amounted to an all out ban on the coverage of protest action.
The May 2016 statement announcing the decision not to cover the protests read: “The SABC as a public service broadcaster would like to condemn the burning of public institutions and has made a decision that it will not show footage of people burning public institutions like schools in any of its news bulletins with immediate effect.”
Motsoeneng said, rather than announcing a ban on this type of coverage, the statement was simply condemning violent protest action and calling on journalists to cover them “responsibly”.
“I will submit that that statement it cautioned people about burning buildings … Even after that, I have already alluded that I explained … the SABC had been covering those protests … but responsibly so,” he said.
Zondo said the statement gives the impression that the SABC would not cover the destruction of property amid protest action. “It does seem the statement does not seem to be reflecting what you say you intended,” he said.
Motsoeneng explained that the SABC would still cover violent protests, but it would not show “those pictures, because the [Broadcasting] Act says don’t glamourise violence”.
On Tuesday, Motsoeneng responded to allegations he interfered in the independence of the SABC.
“It was my job to interfere,” he said.
“Chairperson I just want to demonstrate, it was my job to interfere because their argument is, they are independent … My view on the visuals, you can show the visuals but there are certain visuals that you can’t show. Their issue is that the journalist should be creative and independent. The Broadcasting Act does not talk about journalists being independent as journalists.”