The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is facing a multi-million rand lawsuit over its public claims that some of its employees had sabotaged President Cyril Ramaphosa when it aired an embarrassing video clip of a speech last year.
The public broadcaster made a blunder in September when it aired to millions of South Africans a clip of Ramaphosa rehearsing his speech in the wake of a surge of gender-based violence and the protests that followed the murder of women in the country. Two video clips — the rehearsal clip and the final-cut version — were sent from SABC Cape Town to the studio in Johannesburg and the wrong one aired.
Subsequent to this, three employees were suspended and taken through a disciplinary process over allegations of misconduct.
One of the employees, Megan Lubke, executive producer of the show Full View, who was cleared on charges of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, is now pursuing a case of defamation against the SABC, its executives and board of directors.
Lubke refused to comment and referred questions to the SABC.
At the centre of the more than R12-million lawsuit are the public statements made by the broadcaster soon after the incident; that it had a “strong prima-facie evidence indicating that the broadcast of the incorrect clip was a well-considered and co-ordinated act of sabotage to bring the SABC, and consequently the president, into disrepute”.
According to Lubke’s court papers, the statement was false, malicious, injurious and defamatory as it painted her as a person who colluded with others to commit sabotage.
“Furthermore, the allegations published as aforesaid, in the context of the article/media statement, were wrongful and defamatory of the plaintiff (Lubke) in that they were intended and were understood by readers of the newspaper to mean that the plaintiff is dishonest, lacks leadership, a member of a clandestine group settling scores with the presidency for political gain and/or mileage …”
Lubke further argued through her lawyers that the statement which was subsequently repeated in interviews by SABC’s executives and other media houses, portrayed her as being untrustworthy and unprofessional.
“That the plaintiff is deliberately engaging in the act of sabotage to destroy the national address of the president. That the plaintiff is betraying her country and acting as a terrorist. That the plaintiff is a member of a subversive group that supports the enemy of the nation and engages in deliberate acts to wreak havoc for the president. The said allegations were made with an intention to defame the plaintiff and injure her dignity and reputation,” said Lubke’s summons.
But the SABC, in its special plea on March 24, denied that Lubke was placed on suspension for collusion and sabotage and that there was any defamation against her as she was never mentioned in the public statements.
“Prima facie by definition means ‘at the face of it’ and cannot be reasonably construed as the final conclusion without further interrogation such as the disciplinary hearing … SABC and the third defendant (Phathiswa Magopeni — head of news) always knew and understood that the evidence of sabotage related to the employees involved in the physical editing and flighting of the clip … Suspicion was not, subjectively and objectively speaking, relating to the plaintiff,” said SABC in its court papers.
The broadcaster also argued that there is no evidence that Lubke had suffered in any way because of the statement it had issued.
“The plaintiff’s claim that she was suspended for collusion and sabotage are simply baseless and devoid of any evidential weight … most importantly, no reasonable reader would read and understand the publication as reference to the plaintiff,” said the SABC in its court papers.
Lubke is also demanding R4-million, claiming constitutional damages.
“The plaintiff claims the constitutional damages to vindicate an infringement of a constitutional right and to prevent a further breach thereof. The plaintiff’s right to dignity and the right to practise her profession in terms of section 22 of the Constitution have been assailed as a result of the defendants’ conduct as she is unable to get gainful employment as a result of the malicious and injurious claims made by them, jointly and severally. All prospective employers are unable to hire or engage the plaintiff as an employee as her name and reputation has been infringed,” said Lubke in her papers.
The SABC, however, argues that this claim is also unfounded and not legally sound. “The plaintiff makes no effort whatsoever to sustain and prove this claim, as a matter of fact, the plaintiff remains employed by the first defendant and continues to earn salaries from the first defendant,” the SABC stated in its papers.
The broadcaster declined to comment when asked to do so by the Mail & Guardian although acting spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo confirmed it had filed a plea on March 24.
“As the matter is before the courts, the SABC is not in a position to comment further at this stage and as a principle will not litigate through the media,” Seapolelo said.
In terms of the reports, video and audio recordings that the M&G previously reported on, there was no planned sabotage against Ramaphosa, but a case of errors and incompetence.