MPHO A NDABA: Why the SABC needs a public editor

OPINION

The history of the crises at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (the SABC) in the post-apartheid era went far and beyond the pillaging of its finances. One of the ways in which the former Chief Operating Officer (COO), Hlaudi Motsoeneng, exercised undue control was over programming. For example, in 2016, we saw numerous instances of internal censorship at the SABC, such as the ban on the protest coverage; the refusal to air Rehad Desai's documentary on the Marikana Massacre, Miners Shot Down, and the cancellation of the SAfm show, The Editors.

Sadly, editorial breaches of ethical standards have occurred even though Motsoeneng is no longer at the SABC.
In December 2017, the SABC admitted receiving funds from government for an interview with Bathabile Dlamini without advising the public. In 2018, there were also media reports that Phalaphala FM was given an instruction not to speak about matters related to the VBS heist.

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) is currently considering a Save Our SABC (SOS) Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) complaint about the interview with Ace Magashule, then secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress, led by journalist Samkelo Maseko in which he and a colleague called for political interference at the SABC on retrenchments.

WATCH: SABC interview with Ace Magashule on retrenchments

What all these events signal is that while there might be a new board and management at the public broadcaster, we need to think of an effective and on-going mechanism for protecting the public interest in editorial matters at the SABC. So we at the SOS Coalition have been calling for a Public Editor at the SABC. This has been a staple of our vision document and is part of our alternative SABC Bill, which we recently developed in response to the current (but already outdated) Bill developed by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.

One might ask about the pre-existing complaint mechanisms, such as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa's complaints and compliance committee (CCC), and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa. The answer is that we need an experienced person with specialist expertise inside the SABC, whose job it is to be proactive when it comes to dealing with critical editorial issues and acts solely in the public interest in going about their work. The existence of a Public Editor does not undervalue the critical importance of other oversight structures. But these organisations are reactive and their processes take months. A Public Editor can communicate directly with the public immediately after they become aware of a problem and, importantly, can advise the SABC internally and pro-actively to deal with it and, hopefully, prevent editorial problems from arising in the first place.

Many media outlets have Public Editors and it is long overdue for the public broadcaster with its analogue and digital TV services, its 19 radio stations and myriad online platforms (including social media) to have someone whose mandate it would be to review editorial policy and to be responsive and proactive in ensuring that the public interest in programming is being actively protected from within the SABC itself.

These are exciting times for the SABC but safeguarding the public interest in editorially independent and high-quality programming, particularly in news and current affairs programming, remains a historical question that still needs to be resolved. On that basis, therefore, it is important that it becomes considered, more so within the context where the SABC Bill is being undertaken.

Mpho A Ndaba is project coordinator at the SOS Coalition, a member-based public broadcasting network that campaigns for democratic media and broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter: @Manofcolor_

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