SABC draft Editorial Policy soiled by political influence - Phumzile van Damme

DA MP says draft controversially keeps the GCEO as the editor-in-chief

SABC draft Editorial Policy: a step in the right direction, but soiled by political influence

1 August 2018

The Democratic Alliance(DA) was concerned last evening when the SABC as a public broadcaster allowed Cyril Ramaphosa to address the nation in his capacity as the President of the African National Congress regarding resolutions the party had taken on land at its recent lekgotla. The DA will, therefore, write to the SABC requesting a right of reply for our Party Leader, Mmusi Maimane, to state our position on land and the unemployment crisis. If the SABC fails to grant this, it will be the clearest indicator yet that the entity is officially an ANC mouthpiece and not a public broadcaster.

Furthermore, the DA has reviewed the SABC’s draft editorial policies released for public comment in July 2018. While the policies contain some proposals that would steer the SABC in the right direction, it still contains others that would compromise the independence of the public broadcaster.

At first instance, we are pleased with the SABC for assuring the public of its commitment to its independence by making it clear that it is committed to not allowing political, commercial and personal considerations to influence editorial decisions and that the public broadcaster will not be the mouthpiece of the government of the day and will remain free from any obligation to any interest group.

At the same time, however, the SABC insists on keeping its GCEO as the editor-in-chief to whom “news items that are controversial, or likely to have an extraordinary impact” should be reported in advance. This adds an additional layer of upward referral and creates management control of news on a day-to-day basis.

The DA has repeatedly cautioned against the dangers of this. Our view is shared by the Freedom of Expression Institute which states that because journalists are at the coalface of accessing news and as a result are more in touch with the events in the country, more so than the broadcaster’s management. The current GCEO is not a practising journalist and even if some in management are former journalists themselves, it would still be a matter of principle that editorial decisions should be left in the hands of editors. The SABC’s Head of News should be editor-in-chief to insulate news decisions from any political or commercial considerations that the GCEO and management may have.

We are also displeased with the SABC indicating it will report the news according to “public morality”. It is not for the SABC to decide what is “deemed tasteless or indecent on the grounds of public morality”, its role is to report the news as it happens. We trust that the caveat that the SABC will “…deal frankly with controversial topics and cannot avoid tackling issues because of the risk of offending certain people” will be applied.

Another issue of concern is the SABC’s standpoint that it will not broadcast any material which contains gratuitous violence or promotes or glamourises violence. This is akin to Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s ban on visuals of violent protests. This also means that certain films which contain such scenes will not be broadcast. The SABC has the ability to add age restrictions, audience advisories and broadcasting such materials during its “watershed” period (21h00 to 05h00). Any inkling of banning certain material is simply undesirable if the SABC is to cater for all audiences as a public broadcaster.

We welcome the inclusion of the establishment of an SABC News Ombudsman who will be independent of the SABC staff, management and Board of Directors and provide a platform for the public to register complaints and receive adequate attention on the grievances made against the broadcaster and respond to these expeditiously.

The SABC’s commitment to present fair and balanced stories and every attempt made to give the opposing view in the same story, and “…a damaging critique of an individual is presented, those criticized should be given an opportunity to present their right of reply in a subsequent programme, with comparable prominence” is also commendable.

We also welcome the SABC’s commitment to give full or extended live television and/or radio coverage of events of national importance. However, such coverage must be equitable, if the entire broadcast of an elective congress of one party is given, the same must be extended to all other major political parties.

Finally, we also welcome the SABC’s eagerness to support the development of local television and music.

All in all, the draft editorial policies contain many praise-worthy proposals but must in its final draft deal with the concerns mentioned.

We trust that the SABC will carefully consider and take on-board our suggestions so South Africa can truly have a public broadcaster that is grounded in the values of freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence.

Issued by Phumzile Van DammeDA Shadow Minister of Communications, 1 August 2018