by Linda Ensor, Business Day Live, 24 January 2014
A move by the SABC to revise its editorial policies has led to suspicions that it is seeking to tighten state control over the public broadcaster, especially ahead of the general election when political parties vie for valuable airtime.
The SABC on Thursday extended the deadline for written submissions from December 13 to February 14 to give stakeholders a further opportunity to make submissions on the policies which essentially provide the framework within which SABC staff take decisions about the content on radio and television programmes.
Public hearings will be held in all provinces before a draft policy is released for public comment.
Congress of the People MP and communications spokeswoman Juli Kilian was suspicious of the process, stressing that there was "absolutely nothing defective" about the SABC’s editorial policy.
"Why fix something that is not broken? We know that this is part of the grand scheme of (SABC chief operating officer) Hlaudi Motsoeneng to turn the SABC into a state broadcaster and control the political direction of news bulletins."
Ms Kilian said she was aware of threats of disciplinary action being taken against journalists who did not toe the line regarding the content of news stories.
While the Right2Know Campaign, a lobby group, also has its doubts about the policy review, national co-ordinator Mark Weinberg said the process provided an opportunity for the framework to be improved, and more especially its implementation. This is also the view of the SOS Coalition to save the national broadcaster.
Mr Weinberg said the Right2Know Campaign was participating in the review process in good faith. He believed that the most important issue was the SABC’s "upward referral" policy regarding consultations by staff with editors about their work.
The SABC stresses that its current upward referral policy is "not intended to disallow the production and broadcasting of controversial and compelling programmes", but the Right2Know has in the past highlighted a growing trend of "blatant censorship" and a lack of editorial independence at the broadcaster.
Mr Weinberg was concerned that as the SABC’s chief operations officer, Mr Motsoeneng, was responsible for its commercial viability, but was also the editor in chief. This is widely regarded as an unacceptable arrangement as it risks contaminating the independence of the news. Editorial control was also overly centralised and did not allow enough autonomy to the different divisions, Mr Weinberg said.
Of crucial concern was the implementation, monitoring and accountability of the editorial policy, which currently did not include mechanisms to ensure that this took place and that those who violated the policy were held accountable.
"There are a number of areas where the policy is completely ignored," Mr Weinberg said.
SOS coalition co-ordinator Sekoetlane Phamodi believed the review process was an ideal opportunity for the public to become involved in shaping their public broadcaster. He said the problem lay not so much with the policies themselves but the way the way they were applied. Of particular concern was the current centralisation of editorial line of authority, and the institutional culture of the SABC.