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MAHLATSE MAHLASE: SABC enforcers must hang their heads in shame

"I am the Alpha and Omega," former SABC strongman Hlaudi Motsoeneng once remarked. These are the words that chilled me to the bone and almost three years later, still ring loud.

The disgraced then-COO uttered the chilling words at a workshop for political reporters ahead of the 2016 municipal elections.

It was his response to our questions about political interference in the SABC newsroom.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of him; we have had our battles over the years, but what concerned me most was that he was not joking.

There was no doubt that he was omnipresent in the newsroom. But more frightening was that we were left exposed with no cover from a ruthless dictator despite living in a country with one of the world's best constitutions, that covered the public broadcaster.

Just days before his statement, the SABC 404 channel had broadcast his speech live at the 50th celebrations of Lesedi FM as opposed to then-President Jacob Zuma's address to his nemesis at the Gauteng ANC general council ahead of the hotly contested elections.

The ANC in Gauteng had declared Zuma persona non grata in their elections campaign and wanted him gone, blaming him for their election woes.

But back in Auckland Park, the plan was to carry live a sister station celebrating a milestone and at no point did anyone think "Hold on.....".

It was just one example of how editorial values had stopped dictating story selection because in an environment of fear and abuse of power, people self-censored to please the 27th floor where Motsoeng sat, protected by security guards. As veteran journalist John Pilger once remarked, self-censorship or censorship by omission is the most virulent form of censorship.

The report on political interference at the SABC found no direct line between Luthuli House and decisions of the newsroom but found that “the spectre of the ANC hovered" over the public broadcaster.

But for us who were there at the time, it was clear that Motsoeneng, supported by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi and the board, were doing the bidding of President Jacob Zuma and his faction of the ANC.

Sacrificing Zuma's ANC address for Motsoeneng's own benefit wasn't an issue, regardless of what journalists thought. While generally serving Zuma well, Motsoeneng also delved into self-help, such as dictating to journalists to cover non-news events where he made himself the newsmaker.

It had become a pathetic abuse of power. His orders were nonsensical. For example, he demanded all stories linked to President Zuma (always positive, of course) had to be five minutes long on radio and three minutes on TV. The time allocation was not based on newsworthiness but merely because Zuma was president.

For those not aware, a five-minute package on radio is usually a groundbreaking feature with multiple voices. Normal stories range from two minutes to three at most for radio and even less for television.

The opposition hardly received coverage especially on TV, with instruction that the Democratic Alliance (DA) must be removed even in the story where they were the main complainants in a court case against Zuma.

At some point, we had been told that our phones were bugged and it was expected because we worked for a place declared a National Key Point.

Those in charge believed journalists should actually be vetted like government bureaucrats. We were told we also needed permission to interview politicians.

As we questioned Motsoeneng on his interference, he made it clear he was now large and in charge compared to two years earlier when we won back some space to report the 2014 national elections without fear or favour and being non-partisan.

He demonstrated to us that now he was the editor-in-chief after he had rendered the office of the chief executive officer a rubber-stamping office.

He had now illegally changed the editorial policies and declared himself editor-in-chief.

He essentially told us, if you don’t agree with my instructions, you can leave "via the window or the door." Jimi Matthews, once a respected journalist, would use these words after Motsoeneng approved his appointment as acting CEO.

I decided to leave after the elections "via the door" because being pushed "via the window" from the 27th floor meant there was no guarantee of a safe landing.

It was also clear that institutions created by the Constitution to protect the SABC, itself an institution central to our democracy, had absconded their own duties and were complicit in enforcing dangerous and illegal instructions.

Some of us had tried to informally express our frustrations with those we had hoped would intervene in protecting the institution, to no avail.

The reality is that until the political tide turned in the ANC, SABC employees were facing the gallows - expected to choose between values and feeding their kids or paying for their school fees.

Even if we stood against Motsoeneng, there was absolutely no recourse.

Today those who were not there are quick to judge my then colleagues (yes, they have to take some responsibility), but where were they when the crisis was unfolding?

Every week the pain of SABC employees was splurged on front pages of newspapers.

Motsoeneng was not a closet dictator. In fact, he thrived on the public attention and believed he was loved because instead of people protesting against him, they laughed him off.

As they laughed, the crisis within the broadcaster that belongs to all of us was deepening.

I remember when a journalist from the Sunday Times called me asking for my opinion about “the so-called enforcers”, I told him it was a "neither here nor there" story.

Shouldn’t we be holding Parliament, the ANC and many others responsible for the madness? Why hang employees, acting on instruction from superiors when so many have abdicated their duties?

What do you do when the acting CEO Matthews, who was supposed to be the bulwark against tyranny and defender of independent journalism, had absconded his duties and was now issuing the orders?

Matthews once disputed that Zuma was actually booed at former President Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at the FNB Stadium.

He was the first executive of news to check my script on a random story involving the EFF.

His interference was so pathetic, he removed Julius Malema’s voice from the story, arguing that I had already paraphrased him (as is standard in a radio story) so there was no need for people to hear his voice.

As the Tlholoe report states, in 2014 my immediate bosses stood against Motsoeneng and refused to suspend me.
Their own boss, Matthews, was singing the master’s tune.

Yes, we all have a responsibility to uphold ethical journalism. But so many had lost their livelihoods and could no longer put food on the table while defending ethical journalism.

Those named in the report should take a moment and reflect ....and apologise to those they hurt in implementing Motsoeneng’s instructions.

And yes, they had no defenders and nowhere to run to because those entrusted with protecting them had failed in their responsibility, including the Communications Workers Union.

The question is, could we have led a mass revolt and why didn’t we?

I am still haunted by why, until the SABC 8, we didn’t do anything to stand with colleagues who were fired.

The report might be imperfect, but those who laughed off Motsoeneng while they had powers to stop him must hang their heads in shame.

The ANC must ponder why it fought for this constitutional democracy, but can still have Muthambi as an MP, never mind as chair of a portfolio committee.

Parliament is yet to act against her despite its findings against her.

They have allowed for someone complicit in ruining the public broadcaster to be in its midst and we are supposed to have faith in Parliament, the institution that is supposed to represent the people?

They can’t restore the dignity of those who lost their jobs and those that have sleepless nights as their future hangs in the balance. The SABC continues to count the costs of their abdication of responsibility.

Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief at Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter: @hlatseentle

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