OPINION: Does Hlaudi Motsoeneng have a point?

There is a saying that "Once information is out there, you can't take it back". There is another saying that will worry repressive governments and most certainly the SABC: "Once information is out there, it is infinitely copiable".

The SABC again has a crisis on its hands and yet COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and board chairman Dr Mbulaheni Maguvhe would like us to believe that all is well. With the shock resignation of veteran journalist and acting CEO Jimi Matthews, the irrational suspension of three of its journalists, and three of its senior employees penning a letter lamenting on the low staff morale at the institution and the erosion of journalistic integrity in the news room, as well as a planned march to the SABC offices, it is clear that a 'revolt' is brewing.

For the COO to say that there is no crisis and that the employees are "happy and excited" about leadership, then indeed the emperor has new clothes.

At the centre of the furore is the editorial line that the SABC has adopted and most notably the decision to ban footage of violent protests, or rather, the act of destroying public property because it believes such action incites violence.

In the public rebuke of such a regressive decision we need to also see this as an opportunity to not only explore the role of the media in covering service delivery protests, but the extent to which media coverage fuels and aggravates protests. We also need to see that Motsoeneng's decision rekindles the question of whether limiting the report of violence would result in a decline in the number of violent protests. Motsoeneng's decision sparked my interest into the copycat syndrome influence of the media, and with the 3 August local government elections coming up, it becomes imperative that this topic forms part of our national dialogue and debate.

In the 1960s and 1980s, the copycat phenomenon was a subject of political debate and public discourse in the US and Britain. In 1981 Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association had asked the BBC and ITN to consider whether the televising of acts of vandalism and violence did not contribute to the spread of riots by "creating excitement, encouragement, imitation and actually teaching the techniques of violence". In the aftermath of the 1967 riots that erupted in several cities, President Lyndon Johnson asked the question, "What effect do the mass media have on the riots?" And so the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders of the US was formed and, among other things, investigated the link between the media coverage of disorders and the growth of violence in several cities in the US in the 1960s.

Research by Michael Jetter, a professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Medellin and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, found that media coverage of terrorism resulted in more of such acts being committed. Drawing on empirical evidence, Jetter concluded that, "media attention actively encourages terrorist attacks" by giving the Islamic State "oxygen of publicity". It is also documented that the circulation on social media of the image of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in December 2010 was followed by "a dozen copycat self-immolation in neighbouring countries".

The concerns advanced and the decision taken by Motsoeneng, backed by Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi, are nothing new. In 2005, French media, including at least two television stations, LCI and TFI, out of the fear of increasing levels of violent protests, took a decision to hold back on televising footage of burning vehicles to "avoid stoking violence".

Some channels went as far as not providing the daily police numbers on cars burned, said to have been in thousands at the time. The state broadcaster's deputy director, Jacques Bayle, said the decision was taken because numbers incite troublemakers "to try beat the record like in a sports match". For the French media, young people were manipulating their organisations to escalate the unrest. TV Channel LCI's weekend editor Laurent Drezner was quoted at the time saying, "a burning vehicle is extremely impressive… but we are informing without sensationalism." He also recounted how they had received calls from protest organisers asking why they hadn't sent cameras.

The French police had also reportedly said the riots fuelled a "syndrome of copycat violence". French citizens also pointed to the local and global press coverage as the reason for the spread of violence.

At a dinner table, armed with this information, I vainly tried to make the case for the SABC's decision. In desperation and to everyone's bemusement, I proclaimed that the decision did not amount to censorship. But because I knew wiser, I resolved to endure no further my argument which I would have rounded off with the claim: it's only sanitisation, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

The causal link between media and the eruption and spread of violent protests is difficult to confirm. It is common knowledge that most violent protests are sparked by the disillusionment with government and promises of a democracy. A concoction of exclusion from basic services, high levels of unemployment and an unresponsive government is bound to spark anger and rage. To throw a spanner in the works, one study conducted by Professor Mohamed Seedat, Josephine Cornell, Ayanda Simelane and Shahnaaz Suffla found that in most protesting communities, violence was triggered by the presence of police. For protesters, it is government officials and politicians they want to respond to them and address their problems, not the police.

However, my biggest concern is the use of violence as an effective tool of communication and the successful use of the media by protesters. Several townships in Tshwane went up in flames, but Thoko Didiza remains the mayoral candidate and we are left counting the costs. The FeesMustFall and RhodesMustFall movements had their own pockets of success in affecting change. But for the majority of protesters who live in shanty areas with their backs against the wall, the political energy on the ground, the burning and destruction of property, the tear gas and water cannons is unevenly disproportionate to the achievements of the protests. The protests are never met with the desired outcome, and often followed by government responses which amount to nothing more than rhetoric to pacify the masses. My other concern is that the media's emphasis on the violent nature of protests, which is often accompanied by unfavourable biased coverage of protests, can hurt protest action. Sensationalist coverage of a protest that lacks depth and analysis does not help the rebellion of the poor, but only undermines their cause and objectives.

My other concern is how aggrieved communities can get their message across and exercise their right to demonstrate without infringing on another person's rights and freedom. When violent protests target the property of, for instance, a struggling small business owner, or property that serves the community, I am loathe to ask myself what do we do when a protest reaches endemic dangerous proportions, when there are clear incidents of criminality that mire genuine protests? Do we call on the media to assist in curbing such violent protests? Will we not then be denying the protesters the one tool they have at their disposal? How can media avoid being manipulated by rival politicians, vying for control, who will do all in their power to exploit the material conditions of the poor for their own political ends?

Media have played a huge and fundamental role in successful revolutions. The claim that media fuels copycat riots should not be dismissed as ridiculous, but rather acknowledged. Protesters rely on the media to communicate and spread the word, protesters rely on the media (and other means of communication such as texts, Whatsapp, and social media) to mobilise action and solidarity, so by dismissing Motsoeneng's claim in its entirety borders on misplaced ignorance and disdain for the power of the media to help bring about revolutions.

As we head for the local government elections, which I believe will be marred by violence, we should engage and look at the relationship the media have with protests. We need to look at the extent to which the media is an enabler or inhibitor of violent protests. Maybe we need a commission of inquiry to look into the matter.

As for the SABC… I have no words. While his Matthews's resignation is welcomed, his silence over the years has made him complicit in the erosion of journalistic integrity at the SABC and the crisis the SABC finds itself in. But it's never too late and we can honour his noble decision and regard him as he was in his previous life before he was guided by a misplaced loyalty to the public broadcaster.

Andiswa Makanda is a content producer for the John Robbie Show on 702 for which she won a 2015 MTN Radio Awards. She is currently doing her MA in Media Studies at Wits University.