Testimonies by SA journalists and former executives of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) are being heard, as the group known as the SABC 8 open up affairs of the SABC’s board to the public in a parliamentary inquiry that started this week.
The hearings have opened up a can of worms revealing political interference, intimidation, and espionage within the towers of SA’s SABC.
SA’s SABC has quite a history. Initially, it rose to be the mouthpiece of the apartheid government before being resurrected in 1998 with a new model that saw the emergence (over time) of three free-to-air channels, one 24-hour news channel and 18 radio stations in all 11 official languages. SABC became, essentially, the source of information for a good number of South Africans.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng rose to power at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) over the past few years, becoming the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and as the SABC 8 testify, also becoming a law to himself, who was responsible for the “painful death of public service journalism” in South Africa.
The SABC 8 are a group of journalists who were fired for standing up to Hlaudi Motsoeneng. They describe his leadership as authoritarian and incoherent and reveal that key news was left out of their broadcast in favor of soundbites from government officials and Motsoeneng himself.
They had allegedly been censored and stopped from carrying out their mandate to inform the public. One of the SABC 8 testified that in 2013, Motsoeneng declared that the broadcaster would carry 70 percent positive news and 30 percent negative news.
The committee also heard about the involvement of the State Security Agency who allegedly investigated staff members accused of leaking information. They allegedly carried out secret operations and the journalists lived with the fear of their offices being bugged, sometimes speaking only in corridors to avoid being recorded.
This invisible presence of the security officials was intended to intimidate anyone who attempted to go against Motsoeneng. The committee heard also that the Guptas, president Jacob Zuma’s friends, once tried to take over the SABC News service.
That deal would have allowed the Gupta’s media company to rebrand SABC and come in, occupy its offices and use its journalists and resources all the while retaining advertising revenue.
The hearings that are scheduled to continue until February 28, 2017 are expected to reveal more juicy details of the backstage happenings at the SABC that go far beyond the bizarre policies implemented in recent months like enforcing a 90% local content quota and only showing the President Zuma’s good side.