SABC inquiry a vital process
AT the end of May, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board announced the establishment of a commission of inquiry into editorial interference at the public broadcaster.
The inquiry was established in response to various reports of editorial interference over the years and will deal with complaints concerning conduct between 2012 and 2018.
The inquiry is part of the ongoing work to transform the SABC into an accountable and responsive public institution, following tumultuous years plagued with unconstitutional editorial policies and looting at an astronomical level.
The Terms of Reference of the inquiry acknowledge that the interference could be commercial, political or otherwise driven. They further state that the commission will make recommendations that will lend guidance to the SABC regarding how to address any future interference. Corrective measures, such as disciplinary action where misconduct has been established, are also on the table.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng has long left the SABC but the effects of his disastrous policies and decisions are still rippling through the halls of the public broadcaster. The SABC owes 64 companies at least R100 million for services. A summary of the losses suffered in both revenue and audience indicates that the bulk of these losses can be linked directly to political interference in editorial decisions during Motsoeneng’s tenure.
In addition to the financial woes, political parties allege that there has been a discernible bias towards the governing party and are demanding equitable coverage, particularly during election time.
Impartiality on the part of the SABC is important because viewers deserve adequate and accurate information about all political parties on issues that affect them, particularly as voters, in the run-up to elections.
The SABC is the primary broadcaster and has the widest reach via both television and radio. As such, it has an obligation to be free from political bias and interference from any source.
When the inquiry was established, all the hearings were intended to be conducted in-camera, i.e. in private, effectively preventing the media and the public from accessing the information shared. This is problematic because, as the public broadcaster, any functions and processes concerning its inner workings must be publicly available. This exclusion was challenged in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg by Media Monitoring Africa and the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition. The organisations cited editorial independence at the SABC being a matter of public interest. They argued that the SABC has an obligation to function fairly and objectively, in the interest of the millions of South Africans who depend on it for information.
An out-of-court settlement was reached whereby whistle-blowers will remain protected, but the most pertinent parts will remain available to the media and the general public.
The settlement is a welcome compromise on the part of the SABC.
With the media hailed as the fourth estate in defending our constitutional democracy, it comes as no surprise that there is such fierce action to protect the independence of the SABC. The media has been instrumental in the exposure of rampant corruption and myriad human rights violations, and any threat to it must be extinguished expeditiously.
The appointment of a new board, a new chief operating officer — Chris Maroleng — together with chief executive officer Madoda Mxakwe and chief financial officer Yolande van Biljon, all with impressive credentials, are notable changes made to top management.
Despite these changes, the national Treasury remains reluctant to offer a bailout until the SABC proves its stability. Furthermore, while the SABC has been engaged in ongoing transformation and the establishment of the inquiry is another positive step, whether the recommendations made by the commission will be implemented and contribute to any real change remains to be seen.
While there is a sense of fatigue among the public regarding the efficacy of, and need for, commissions of inquiry, it is still necessary that the work of the SABC inquiry continue. It is vital for the SABC as a public broadcaster to woo the South African public and reassure the nation of its place in a society based on accountability, responsiveness and openness.
• Rebecca Sibanda is a legal assistant at the Centre for Constitutional Rights.