< State-Owned Media in South Africa

Transcript

Friday, December 30, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Two months ago I went to Johannesburg, South Africa to take the measure of the media scene, and particularly the nation's biggest media outlet. What follows is a rebroadcast of those reports.

For an analysis of the press environment in the 17 years since the end of apartheid rule in South Africa, it would be hard to be any more succinct than Jeremy Maggs, news host and media analyst for the independent broadcaster eNews.

JEREMY MAGGS:

It’s gritty, it’s rugged, it’s determined and it gets up the nose of everybody.

BOB GARFIELD:

Chief among those irritated noses is the ruling African National Congress Party, which has dominated government since the 1994 end of the great anti-apartheid struggle. Once upon a time ANC leaders were the unequivocal good guys, liberators of a nation and authors of perhaps the most inclusive individually empowering constitution ever written.

Now they are the authors of breathtaking corruption, political infighting, scandalous failure to deliver basic services to the poorest citizens, increasingly brutal responses to civil protests and a growing intolerance for criticism.

Maggs and the rest of the South African media establishment see a gathering storm of press intimidation via proposals for a new secrecy law and the formation of a media appeals tribunal as a government arbiter of press excess.

JIMI MATTHEWS:

This revolutionary party, now a ruling party, increasingly finds itself on the wrong side of the masses, whose interests they claim to promote.

BOB GARFIELD:

That's Jimi Matthews, head of TV News at the South African Broadcasting Company, or SABC, which controls three of four national channels.

JIMI MATTHEWS:

The contradiction is that the ruling party, the ANC, is responsible, to a large degree, for delivering this constitution that we have. And so, one would expect that they would be the champions to defend this.

But, in reality, they are politicians.

BOB GARFIELD:

That allegation of political opportunism has long since ceased being controversial. Whether the episode was former President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism or or his coddling of Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe, or current kickback scandals totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the ANC has repeatedly appeared, in a word, un-Mandela-like. What is controversial, however, is the SABC's standing as a critic of politics as usual.

JOE THLOLOE:

SABC Radio and Television, you always take their stories with a pinch of salt.

BOB GARFIELD:

Joe Thloloe is South Africa's press ombudsman.

JOE THLOLOE:

Sadly, the SABC, which, in fact, should be the crown of journalism in this country, isn't doing what it should be doing.

BOB GARFIELD:

The proposed press laws, Thloloe says, whether passed or not, invite self-censorship in what he sees as precisely the SABC model.

He's not alone in that view.

William Bird, director of the public interest group Media Monitoring Africa, says the organization is weighted down with hundreds of political appointees called cadres, whose sole qualification is service to the ANC.

WILLIAM BIRD:

I've spoken to producers who’ve said that ministers phoned them and said, “We want this person on air,” where the pressure is there’s directors there. But there’s a perceived implication that they would want us to do this, so we’ll make sure that we follow that line.

BOB GARFIELD:

Or, Bird says, made-to-order coverage for people in high places wishing to grind an axe on SABC. When the respected Mail & Guardian newspaper questioned a government contract left to an oligarch named Robert Gumede, the SABC quickly ran a two-and-a-half minute story consisting mainly of Gumede’s wild never-substantiated accusations, including bribery and racism against the newspaper reporter. Here's how it sounded on SABC:

[CLIP]:

He alleges the Mail & Guardian newsman Sam Sole was paid by Sterenborg to write the damaging stories about him.

ROBERT GUMEDE:

Here is the payment, made out to a so-called investigative journalist, who goes out to a – attack black people to say that they are corrupt, they bribe people.

WILLIAM BIRD:

Gumede says he’s being vilified by the paper because of his public support for the ANC, and a suspicion that as a black man, he must have acquired his wealth dubiously.

BOB GARFIELD:

Response from the Mail & Guardian was presented as an eight-second perfunctory denial.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

This news is brought to you by...

[BROADCAST CLIPS/MUSIC]

BOB GARFIELD:

In its earliest post-Apartheid days, the SABC was the aggressive, courageous, muckraking news organization it had never been under minority white rule. But this critical source of news, information and entertainment for South Africa's population of nearly 50 million has gradually drifted away from the public broadcasting role mandated in its charter.

MONDLI MAKHANYA:

Because the new governance could not let go of the power that they saw that the previous government, that the apartheid government, had over the public broadcaster, which is a very powerful medium.

BOB GARFIELD:

Mondli Makhanya is group editor-in-chief of the newspaper group Avusa and chairperson of The South Africa Editors' Forum.

MONDLI MAKHANYA:

So you can imagine the temptation, you can imagine how they celebrated the ability to do that. So they soon turned the public broadcaster back into the state broadcaster, something that actually is a pale shadow of what we all hoped it would be.

BOB GARFIELD:

All this criticism, Jimi Matthews, head of news at SABC TV, has heard many times before.

JIMI MATTHEWS:

SABC is everyone's favorite whipping boy and, you know, that comes with the turf. This seems also to me to be a notion, and I think it's a cheap notion, that to be independent, you have to be critical of government at all costs.

BOB GARFIELD:

No, you have to be willing to be critical of government at all costs.

JIMI MATTHEWS:

And that I agree with. And I think that we have been. And I don't think that the SABC is often given credit for that.

BOB GARFIELD:

He cites, for instance, the April police killing of a protestor in the town of Ficksburg in the Free State, an episode the SABC happened to be on hand to record, and which it broadcast, most graphically, the same week.

[CLIP]

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

[TRAFFIC HORNS] It started as a peaceful march but there was little doubt that many residents were angry. They were demanding action from a municipality they think have constantly ignored their calls to deliver. The resultant scuffle was both brutal and shocking.

[CROWD SHOUTS]

BOB GARFIELD:

Though the authorities were shaken by such reporting and let that be known to Matthews' superiors, he says it's not necessarily explicit interference that makes his job difficult.

JIMI MATTHEWS:

And I have a newsroom filled with poorly-trained reporters, where there is no real incentive to go out and break stories. I find a newsroom that is subjected to the demands of the trade unions, where the first recourse to criticism is to call the union rep, that the place is littered with party hacks. It is  without a spirit.

BOB GARFIELD:

Recently, a mid-level editor suggested covering a run-of-the-mill ANC press conference.

JIMI MATTHEWS:

I said, unless you can actually tell me what this press conference is about, yes, we will attend the press conference if we think it's important, and it would be a part of a bigger story, but the press conference on its own does not qualify.

I had hardly got to my desk when my phone rang, and it was an ANC person calling to say, “Oh, I believe you don't cover our press conferences anymore.”

BOB GARFIELD:

Matthews says he struggles daily to navigate the many political, budgetary, commercial and personnel obstacles in his path because he believes SABC can, and must, do better.

JIMI MATTHEWS:

I've been shot at, I've been slapped about by the apartheid police, had cell doors slammed shut behind me. I do what I do - voluntarily. I'm not a member of a political organization. I think even those critical of the work I do, if they criticize the journalism, that's fine. I have a very clear view of what journalism I will try to leave behind, and every day is a struggle. I haven't had a single easy day.      

BOB GARFIELD:

To this lament, however, at least one ex-SABC-er is unimpressed.

EUSEBIUS McKAISER:

What marginal benefit is there if your two choices are a genuine propagandist versus a Jimi Matthews who is basically a human being walking around with a vision in his head, but there's nothing that the millions of viewers see when they tune in to the telly.

BOB GARFIELD:

Eusebius McKaiser was an outspoken and confrontational host of the SABC political interview show “Interface" when he bluntly challenged the minister of justice.

EUSEBIUS McKAISER:

It took just a couple of phone calls from one of the minister's team who were unhappy at the grilling that I'd given him, the Minister of Justice. And then the sort of soft technique to get one out of the building started kicking in.

BOB GARFIELD:

He can't prove that stepping on powerful toes ended his SABC career, but he believes it was the precipitating event for a series of decisions that he says ultimately compelled his resignation.

Jeremy Maggs, the media critic at competing eNews, can't speak to the particulars of that episode, but the story sounds to him, also an ex-SABC host, all too familiar. So too, the intimidation it implies.

JEREMY MAGGS:

You talk about the gathering storm. I think it's a lot more than that. I think the storm has already arrived. I think it's raining, to be quite honest with you. And I just hope that the umbrellas that we've got are, you know, strong enough to withstand all the drops that are coming our way.

BOB GARFIELD:

The SABC sits atop a hill in Johannesburg, two circa-1960 office towers connected by a warren of corridors, dark, weary and institutional. The whole complex looms over the city. As I walked outside into the Southern Hemisphere spring, clouds literally hovered at the towers' rooftops. At that very moment, a big story was breaking.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

It involved the secret use of government funds to lease 86 cars, including top-of-the-line Mercedes, in violation of contracting rules. The purchaser? The SABC.