Sunday, July 3, 2016

The SABC: going from crisis to catastrophe

Moetsoneng. Image ewn.co.za .
If the rot is not stopped, the SABC is well on its way to becoming a Broederbond-style puppet it was before 1994.

THE censorious, high-handed, Stalin-esque edifice that currently passes for our national broadcaster today is a cause for grave concern. Admittedly, the SABC has been in a crisis for years, but under its current Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Moetsoneng, the SABC has drifted from a crisis to a catastrophe.

So much so, that the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, the World Editors Forum and the African Editors Forum have expressed concerns about the silencing and censoring of SABC journalists.

The demeaning response by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi  to acting chief executive Jimi Mathews’ resignation is equally disappointing. Mathews has been at the media coalface for decades – apartheid and post-apartheid. His comments about a “corrosive” atmosphere at Auckland Park – or Hlaudi House as it’s now known – should be taken very seriously.

Without doubt, one of the greatest questions in the whole distasteful saga is how the government has allowed Moetsoneng, a man of dubious qualification and dishonest character (confirmed by the Public Protector), to run such a critical institution as the national broadcaster.

Not only that, he was found wanting as a media professional in 2006 when he was a producer at Lesedi FM. A Deloitte and Touche audit had his colleagues regarding him as a “semi-literate” journalist who was “inexperienced” and unable to communicate effectively in English.

Then there is the fact that with the Western Cape High Court ruling his appointment as COO unlawful, Hlaudi Moetsoneng should not even be in the building. His boss Madame Faith Mathumbi, who has supported and emboldened him, has a lot to answer for.

Not only does she have to comply with a court order against her department on digital migration and encryption boxes – which she thinks only the SABC should have access to – but the view of media pundits such as the Media Monitoring Agency, who say that the SABC has violated its licence conditions due to Moetsoneng’s showy mismanagement.  

Constitutionally, the SABC is meant to be a public broadcaster, not the personal fiefdom of its COO, or the exclusive voice of a political master such as President Jacob Zuma. 

My concern, as a practising journalist of 40 years, is that if the rot is not stopped soon the SABC will be well on its way to becoming a Broederbond-style puppet, something that it was before 1994. Like so many South Africans, I do not want to see the national broadcaster laundering my news 22 years after democracy.

When I first entered the trade of journalism in 1976, there was almost blind obeisance  to the National Party – and if you wanted to speak the truth, you had to work in the alternative media or for foreign wire services where fear, danger, banning and security police harassment would be your daily diet.  These are things that former executive officer Jimi Mathews, who was a cameraman for Visnews in those days, should remember well.

Moetsoneng’s unilateral shutting down of The Editor’s programme, his ban of newspaper headlines and his censoring of violent protest are just so starkly reminiscent of the old-style SABC, an SABC that blacked-out everything that the state – or Nationalist Party royalty – did not like.

Even Moetsoneng’s style of leadership – best described as post-apartheid baaskap – is similar to the white baaskap of the SABC’s biggest don, Piet Meyer, who according to former Board member, Prof Sampie Terreblanche, ran the apartheid broadcaster like a Mafia.

Moetsoneng’s surprise, if not welcome announcement of the SABC’s eighteen radio stations having to play 90% local content unfortunately does not indicate informed decision making, let alone market research. Even local musicians, most of whom have never received royalties from the SABC anyway, were taken aback at his edict.

His response to Radio Lotus was as bizarre as his Mzwakhe Mbuli composed Morning Live praise song. During a live interview on Lotus’ Newsbreak show he stopped presenter Genevieve Lanka from reading out listener responses. They were expressing concerns about the station being able to find enough local Indian artists to fill the playlist, something that did not seem to bother Moetsoneng.

That Moetsoneng’s elephant in the room could be his own ego is a moot point. But further questions have to be asked about the role that SABC Board chairman, Mbulaheni Maguvhe, has played in the whole saga.  His apparent muteness on Moetsoneng’s wild managerial ways on floor 27 of Auckland Park seems to be a case of tacitere et consente – silence is consent.

This is against the background of Moetsoneng claiming that he enjoys the full support of the South African public and the SABC Board, SABC insiders claiming that the Board has been cowed by his political connections – something Moetsoneng publicly laughs off.

In any case, it seems as if Maguvhe will soon have to literally face the music. A document seen by journalists at the Sunday Times indicates that in September this year he will have to explain how the SABC has managed to post a massive multi-million rand loss for its past financial year, in spite of promises in parliament of a turnaround by minster Faith Mathumbi.

A warning sign has been the broadcaster being refused a special R32 million special allocation to cover the municipal elections by the Treasury, and Moetsoneng’s contradictory utterances to the media about the SABC not facing a financial crisis and having hundreds of millions of rands in the bank.

The issue of Moetsoneng, and his disastrous leadership of the SABC, goes far beyond being an internal spat or a case of political difference. It is an affair that should concern every South African citizen. The SABC, we have to remind ourselves again, is a national – and not an ANC – broadcaster. For millions of us, even in frontline states such as Zimbabwe, the SABC is our only source of news and we all have a right to accurate and fair coverage.