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FXI concerned about "growing trend of self-censorship" in the South African Broadcasting Corporation

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is a FXI press release:

FXI concerned about growing trend of self-censorship at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)

The FXI is deeply disturbed about recent reports regarding the SABC's decision not to [broadcast] a documentary on South African President Thabo Mbeki scheduled for Wednesday of last week. Apparently the documentary takes a critical look at the President's governance style, including what many commentators have referred to as a growing centralisation of government. Several newspaper reports have quoted sources stating that the documentary was canned shortly before it was due to be screened after a member of SABC's management had an informal meeting with the Communications Department of the Presidency, where concern was expressed about the documentary's contents. Also, apparently management was concerned that the timing of the documentary was wrong. Mbeki has been accused of being behind the demise of the former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who was recently acquitted of rape, and reportedly management was concerned that a critical documentary may heighten the political [tensions] in the country. The FXI has also just learnt that another documentary, [one] on Irvin Khoza, was altered by removing the most controversial part from the film.

The explanation given by the SABC for canning the Mbeki film raises more questions than answers. It also confirms the broadcaster's growing tendency, of late, to refuse to explain controversial editorial decisions on the basis that these decisions are "its own business". No one expects the SABC to engage in mass consultation before making controversial judgement calls, but there needs to be more transparency in the way these judgement calls are made. Ultimately, the SABC itself is responsible for ensuring that commissioned programmes "jump through the hoops" of internal approval before being [broadcast] and viewers should not be made to pay for something that was within the SABC's control. The documentary was also advertised during the course of the week before the day that it was to be [broadcast]. This action indicates the SABC's growing disrespect towards the public it is supposed to be serving. So much for the talk of the SABC shifting from being a public broadcaster that is inward-oriented and self-assessing to a broadcaster that is citizen-focused. This shift is explained in the SABC's new strategic outlook document, recently unveiled by the CEO Adv. Dali Mpofu.

The judgement with regard to the Thabo Mbeki documentary needed to be made by the public. The producers of the documentary have said that senior SABC staffers kept tabs on the production of the film, were cognisant of any legal implications and followed all necessary procedures. Given the content of the documentary, the decision to pull the documentary at the very last minute has the look and the feel of self-censorship.

This impression is underscored by other recent incidents that call into question the SABC's will to report on the central political controversies without fear or favour. This is the second time recently that a programme slated for broadcast has "bitten the dust" at the eleventh hour. The first incident involved an "Asikhulume" interview. Also, a pro-Zuma song was pulled from the SABC's playlist and the reasons given were unsatisfactory. Then there was the inept handing of television reporting of the booing of Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, resulting in an internal investigation. It can hardly be coincidental that the most troubling editorial decisions the SABC has made recently relate to the controversies surrounding the President and the former and current Deputy Presidents. Any reasonable person would join the dots and infer that the SABC is acting in this manner because it is pro-Thabo Mbeki and anti-Jacob Zuma. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is a reasonable inference to draw under the circumstances.

When viewed together, these incidents imply that self-censorship is becoming the single biggest threat to the independence of the SABC. In fact, the SABC's actions make external interference redundant, as controversial material is filtered out of the system before it sees the light of day.

What is particularly disturbing is that no apology was given at the time of broadcast regarding the rescheduling of the programme. Also, apparently the programme producers were not warned of the rescheduling. This smacks of contempt for the viewing public and for the programme producers. If the SABC expects the public to buy into its new strategic outlook of "public service broadcasting for total citizen empowerment", then it needs to desist from disempowering the very public it claims to serve. This it has done by promising a programme on a particular date, not delivering, not explaining why at the time, and then hiding behind internal processes after the fact.

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