By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights
15 August 2018
At the end of May 2018, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) Board announced the establishment of a commission of inquiry into editorial interference at the public broadcaster. The inquiry was established in response to various reports of editorial interference over the years and will deal with complaints concerning conduct between 2012 and 2018. The inquiry is part of the ongoing work to transform the SABC into an accountable and responsive public institution, following tumultuous years plagued with unconstitutional editorial policies, and looting at an astronomical level. The Terms of Reference (TOR) of the inquiry acknowledge that the interference could be commercial, political or otherwise driven. The TOR further state that the commission will make recommendations that will lend guidance to the SABC regarding how to address any future interference. Corrective measures – such as disciplinary action where misconduct has been established – are also on the table.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng has long left the SABC but the effects of his disastrous policies and decisions are still rippling through the halls of the public broadcaster. As it stands, the SABC owes 64 companies at least R100 million for services. A summary of the losses suffered in both revenue and audience indicates that the bulk of these losses can be directly linked to political interference in editorial decisions during Motsoeneng’s tenure at the SABC. Policies such as the 90% local content quota have directly contributed to a significant portion of the shortfall of revenue. The latest challenge in connection with the revenue loss is the inability of the SABC to broadcast any of the national football team’s games due to liquidity issues, which has since been remedied.
In addition to the financial woes, political parties allege that there has been a discernible bias towards the governing party and are demanding equitable coverage, particularly during election season. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), have raised the point concerning bias in the past. The EFF claims that it has been a direct victim of editorial interference and marginalisation at the SABC. More recently, the DA has alleged bias due to the failure on the SABC’s part to air a response to the recent announcement by the President, in his role as the leader of the governing party that it will push for an amendment of the property clause. This is particularly problematic because it is irregular for scheduled programming to be interrupted for a political party to deliver a message, as opposed to a statement issued by the government itself.
Impartiality on the part of the SABC is important because viewers deserve adequate and accurate information about all political parties on issues which affect them – particularly as voters – in the run-up to elections. The SABC is the primary broadcaster and has the widest reach, via both television and radio. As such, it has an obligation to be free from political bias and interference from any source.
When the inquiry was established, all the hearings were intended to be conducted in-camera i.e. in private, effectively preventing the media and the public from accessing the information shared. This is highly problematic because as the public broadcaster, any functions and processes concerning its inner workings must be publicly available. This exclusion was challenged in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), an organisation which promotes ethical and fair journalism, together with the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, which campaigns for public broadcasting in the public interest. The organisations filed an urgent application demanding that the SABC open its in-camera inquiry to the public, citing editorial independence at the SABC being a matter of public interest. They argued, rightfully so, that the SABC has an obligation to function fairly and objectively, in the interest of the millions of South Africans who depend on it for information.
An out-of-court settlement was reached whereby whistle-blowers will remain protected, but the most pertinent parts will remain available to the media and the general public. The settlement is a welcome compromise on the part of the SABC. In the past, a lengthy legal battle would likely have followed, effectively stalling the work of the commission and the recovery of the broadcaster, whilst simultaneously haemorrhaging money to pay legal fees.
With media having been hailed as the fourth estate in defending the South African constitutional democracy, it comes as no surprise that there is consistently such fierce action to protect of the independence of the SABC. The media has been instrumental in the exposure of rampant corruption and a myriad of human rights violations, and any threat to it must be extinguished expeditiously. The SABC – being the largest broadcaster in the country – must toe the line and operate with its constitutional mandate as a key consideration. The out-of-court settlement serves to reaffirm the fundamental values of openness and accountability, as envisaged by the Constitution.
The appointment of a new Board, a new Chief Operating Officer – Chris Maroleng – together with Chief Executive Officer, Madoda Mxakwe, and Chief Financial Officer Yolande van Biljon, all with impressive credentials, are notable changes made to top management.
Despite these changes, National Treasury remains reluctant to offer a bailout until the SABC proves their stability. Furthermore, whilst the SABC has been engaged in ongoing transformation and the establishment of the inquiry being another positive step, whether the recommendations made by the commission will be implemented and contribute to any real change, remains to be seen. While there is a sense of fatigue among the public regarding the efficacy of, and need for commissions of inquiry, it is still necessary that the work of SABC inquiry continue. It is vital for the SABC as a public broadcaster to woo the South African public and reassure the nation of its place in a society based on accountability, responsiveness and openness.