In South Africa, judge orders probe into censorship at SABC

In South Africa, a judge this week ordered an official investigation into allegations that a former news executive for national public broadcaster SABC had muted critical voices and skewed coverage of major events–like the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s 2005 election in favor of the ruling party. The ruling comes amid a contentious press freedom debate stirred by legislative proposals from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that critics say would criminalize investigative journalism.

SABC–the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which has ties to the ANC –has an official mandate to “offer a plurality of views” as well as “advance the national and public interest,” a break from the days when it was under the absolute control of the apartheid regime. However, Johannesburg High Court Judge C.J. Claassen determined that there was sufficient ground to investigate the station for violating its license conditions and the 2002 Broadcasting Act, notably during the term of former news chief Snuki Zikalala, an embattled veteran militant of the ANC who headed the station during the presidency of former President Thabo Mbeki.

In particular, the judge determined that there was enough evidence to suggest that Zikalala had unlawfully directed SABC news coverage of Zimbabwe’s 2005 elections to favor President Robert Mugabe, and blacklisted commentators critical of Mbeki’s controversial “silent diplomacy” policy toward Zimbabwe, including Elinor Sisulu, Moeletsi Mbeki, Trevor Ncube, Aubrey Matshiqi, and Karima Brown.

“Dr. Zikalala’s blacklisting of commentators perceived to be critical of the government of the day was clearly designed to silence their voices by not allowing them on air,” the judge was quoted in news reports as saying, calling Zikalala’s actions “pre-censorship.” SABC’s news and current affairs programs “had to meet the highest standards of journalism, providing fair and unbiased coverage, with impartiality, balance, and independence from government commercial and other interests,” the judged added. Zikalala declined to comment to CPJ, saying he was still studying the judgment.

The case was brought before the court by the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) after the state-run Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) dismissed in 2009 its complaint regarding SABC’s 2006 blacklisting of a number of political commentators. Claasen said ICASA showed “flawed reasoning” in deciding it had no jurisdiction to decide on a complaint laid by the FXI.

“If correct, it would mean that the SABC may, with impunity, manipulate and distort the preparation of its news and current affairs coverage and publicly lie about it when they are caught out having done so,” he was quoted by the Cape Times as saying. Asked to comment on the ruling, ICASA spokeswoman Jubie Matlou told CPJ her organization was still studying the judgment and would comment further once they had done that.

Thabo Leshilo, chairman of the Media Freedom Committee of the South African Editors Forum said SABC “was hugely compromised by this and it got to the point where one could not tell whether SABC was the public broadcaster or the state propaganda machine.”

Press freedom activists and journalists overwhelmingly welcomed the ruling. Jayshree Pather, Program Coordinator at FXI called it “a landmark victory” that was vital in ensuring that the public broadcaster fulfilled its mandate without political interference. She told CPJ the decision also affirmed the authority of Icasa to ensure that SABC adhered to its legislative charter. National Press Club Chairman Yusuf Abramjee told CPJ the South African public had the right to demand an honest, clean and transparent public broadcaster.

Kate Skinner, coordinator of Save Our SABC Coalition said the judgment is a major triumph for press freedom in South Africa . “ICASA has been trying to shy away from this role but the public have a right to expect the public broadcaster to provide balanced, independent reporting and not be politically biased and cut out critical voices,” she said.