Perhaps one of the few well-received decisions by the SABC was the order for 90% local content across all SABC radio stations. While hailed as a great step in transformation through giving airtime to South African artists and producers, the manner in which it will be implemented – given the timeframe to produce quality content – remains questionable.

The decision to axe the popular 20-year-old current affairs Sunday morning show, The Editors, from the radio also raises eyebrows. The SABC cited dynamic programming as its reason for the cancellation. However, given the show’s critical discussion of current events, it may be argued that the show was axed in order to prevent views critical of the governing party’s polices and conduct in the run-up to the local government elections.  

Arguably, the SABC’s decision to refrain from broadcasting violent protests that show damage to property on television was the most worrying. The reason proffered for the move was that airing the violence incited similar violent conduct and served to inflame otherwise peaceful protests.

If the above line of reasoning is to be followed to its logical conclusion, then any news about mismanagement of government departments should not be broadcast in the fear that it may encourage other departments to follow suit. Media Monitoring Africa, the SOS Coalition – a pressure group campaigning for an independent public broadcaster – and the Freedom of Expression Institute teamed up to submit an urgent application to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to force the SABC to immediately revoke its controversial decision to censor broadcast footage of the destruction of property during protests. In turn, the ICASA has overruled the decision to censor violent protest, thus lending credence to the concerns of unconstitutionality raised by civil society and political parties alike.

To date, a total of seven journalists have been suspended for refusing to abide by the censorship directive. In light of the ICASA ruling, questions remain as to the fate of these journalists. Furthermore, the resignation of the SABC’s Chief Executive Officer, Jimi Matthews, based on what he describes as a ‘corrosive environment’ at the broadcaster suggests that the SABC is indeed being run in a manner contravening the Constitution. The censorship even drew the attention of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (the Commission) which, in an urgent letter to the President, asked him to intervene in the situation at the SABC in respect of the provisions of the African Charter relating to the freedom of expression and access to information. The Commission cautioned that failure to rectify the situation would result in South Africa falling short of the African Charter, to which South Africa is a party.

The SABC’s own Editorial Policy states that the broadcaster aims to provide its citizens with the information needed to participate in the building of the democracy. The examples of censorship described above do little to encourage citizenship participation. The SABC further claims to be built on editorial independence that upholds the freedom of expression, transparency and accountability. These values appear to have been severely compromised in recent weeks. The SABC appears to be in violation of not just its own mandate as a public broadcaster, but also in violation of the constitutionally protected freedom of expression, as well as freedom of the press and other media. In any event, South Africa as a constitutional democracy has openness as a default value and the kind of censorship the SABC seeks to enforce has no place in the nation. This form of censorship also means that the SABC is failing to abide by its own mandate – which states that the SABC endeavours to be responsive to the needs of its audience. In the run-up to the municipal elections, it is imperative for the public to receive complete, accurate and impartial news in order make informed decisions on 3 August.

Press freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy and it goes hand in hand with the right to access to information. In a democracy that has made leaps and bounds in terms of media freedom, the events at the SABC add weight to the idea of bias in favour of one voice, rather than being the voice of the nation. Should the SABC continue on the above trajectory, then surely it fails on its mandate as a public broadcaster, and rather becomes a state broadcaster – seeking only to advance one party’s political perspectives.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights