SABC keeps lid on ‘Project Spear’ documentary

The South African Broadcasting Corporation is in the news for not airing a politically sensitive documentary that details allegations of apartheid-era theft of public funds. The public broadcaster, which had commissioned the film, has also refused to sell the rights back to the filmmaker and has filed a lawsuit demanding she turn over her raw footage and accusing her of breaching copyright by staging private screenings. 

“Project Spear” documents a 1999 proposal from the British-based private investigation company Ciex to the South African government to recover billions in public funds the firm said were misappropriated by apartheid-era bankers and officials. The film is based on a story first broken by the independent investigative magazine Noseweek in September 2010. (The film has no connection to “The Spear,” a satirical portrait of South African President Jacob Zuma, which caused debate last year.)

“Project Spear” was originally scheduled for broadcast in September 2012 as the first in a six-part series called “Truth Be Told,” commissioned by SABC 2, one of three free-to-air TV channels operated by the public broadcaster. It was later advertised for broadcast on November 4, 2012, as the last in the series. However, it never aired.

Veteran South African journalist and filmmaker Sylvia Vollenhoven and her company VIA produced the documentary. Another of VIA’s films, “Roar Young Lions,” which described forgotten veterans of the liberation struggle, was also part of the series and was screened as scheduled.

Vollenhoven told CPJ that when she asked why “Project Spear” had not been shown, she was told by the SABC’s acting head of factual commissioning, in an email, that the film was “too sophisticated for an SABC2 audience.” She was told by another SABC staffer that the government “would not take kindly” to its content.

In an editorial on December 1, 2012, castigating the SABC for not showing the 47-minute documentary, for which it had paid 280,000 rand (US$30,000), Noseweek quoted an SABC editorial compliance officer as saying the film constituted “unfair trial by the media.” The officer was also quoted as saying that the film promoted Noseweek in violation of corporate policy.

In an interview with Noseweek, Vollenhoven said that senior reserve bank officials had declined to be interviewed for the documentary. She said she would have been willing to make revisions had the SABC sought any specific changes, but the piece over all was an accurate examination of a significant public issue.

About that time, when it became clear the SABC had no plans to air the program, Vollenhoven said she offered to buy back the rights to the film. She said the SABC initially responded by saying her offer was “being sent around for signatures,” but she heard nothing more.

Vollenhoven and Noseweek‘s top editor, Martin Welz, held a private screening of the film for those who helped produce it and in December 2012, after no further responses from the SABC, Noseweek arranged a screening of the film for its subscribers. When the news magazine announced its intention to show it to an audience at a literary festival outside Cape Town in May, SABC lawyers sent a letter instructing Vollenhoven not to show the film and threatened to obtain a court order to prevent the screening if necessary.

The corporation subsequently filed a lawsuit demanding that Vollenhoven hand over all of the raw footage, annotated scripts, and research material related to the film, as well as the master recordings. The legal papers also stated that the SABC had decided not to sell any of its rights in the production to her. In a separate legal brief, the SABC also demanded that Welz surrender his DVD copy of the documentary.

Welz told CPJ that he was reluctant to give up the disc, but he could ill afford fighting the SABC in court. He condemned the SABC’s demand that Vollenhoven hand over her raw footage and research and said he disagreed with their claim that keeping it was a breach of copyright.

“This film is not a work of fiction. It’s factual reportage, therefore the SABC has no ownership of the story,” said Welz. “They don’t own my opinions or anyone else’s. This is public information and a factual history recorded by me.”

This week, with the support of South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre and the Freedom of Expression Institute, Vollenhoven said she would oppose the SABC’s demands. Vollenhoven said she simply wants to make another version of the film using her original footage and research–but it seems that is what the SABC wants to prevent.

SABC spokesman Kaiser Kganyago told CPJ that he did not understand what the fuss was about. “It’s not an issue about broadcasting a documentary, it’s about the SABC commissioning something and asking Sylvia to deliver her materials,” he said. “The SABC paid for her work … You can’t use it in another form. We commissioned it, and we can decide to use it or not, or any parts of it. When it may be broadcast, we can debate at a later stage,” he added.

Kganyago said he was “unaware” that the documentary had been scheduled for broadcast saying that “editorial people make that decision.” He did not respond to CPJ email inquiries seeking an explanation as to why the SABC is unwilling to sell back the rights to Vollenhoven, or explain why the film was not shown in the first place.

The issues raised in the documentary have been brought to the attention of South Africa’s public protector, Thuli Madonsela who, in July 2011, said she would investigate some of the allegations made by Ciex. The firm had secured a contract in 1997 to investigate apartheid plunder, details of which were also documented by the Institute for Security Studies in a report published in 2006. Madonsela’s report is due to be issued next month.

“This is why I’m anxious to work on a second film,” said Vollenhoven, “but as things stand, I can’t use a single minute of anything I filmed as part of the SABC’s commission. The story still stands.”

Vollenhoven said the SABC lacked clear leadership and the decision not to screen the film was made by people who were fearful they could lose their jobs. “On the surface the SABC claims this is about protecting their copyright,” Vollenhoven said, “but they have no intention of showing the film so their action is purely punitive.”

[Reporting from Cape Town]