The SABC strikes again


The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is making the news instead of
showing it, again. This time over the last-minute canning of not only the second
season of popular news and current affairs show, The Big Debate, but all
rebroadcasts of the first season shortly before its season premiere. In its official
response to the nation’s outcry over the cancellation of the show, which had found
itself firmly entrenched in the homes and hearts of south Africans, the SABC was
resolute in its justification for the canning: it is against the policies of the SABC to
outsource news and current affairs.

Editorial responsibility for all news and current affairs content is vested in the
newsroom. The Big Debate, which is a current affairs programme, was incorrectly
commissioned by SABC2 and in so doing, the editorial oversight, which is the
responsibility of the newsroom, was compromised.

If you have ever watched the show, you will know that it covers some of the most
topical issues affecting ordinary South Africans every day. The topics range from
state violence and police brutality, following the Marikana massacre last year, to the
epidemic rates of violence against women in South Africa. Bringing together
government officials, industry representatives, civil society and ordinary South
Africans in a robust, town-hall style debate ably facilitated by radio and television
personality Siki Mgabadeli, The Big Debate has successfully sparked important
dialogue across the country about the realities, opportunities and challenges South
Africans face each day.

It bears stating that The Big Debate is precisely the kind of programming a public
broadcaster tasked with not only informing, educating and entertaining but also
promoting democratic values, including that of active citizenship, should be
broadcasting. And yet the show, which came at no cost to the broadcaster, being
sponsored by generous human rights foundations, was canned for innocuous and
unsubstantiated “policy’ reasons. The SABC’s editorial policies, in fact, explicitly
provide for the outsourcing of news and current affairs programming provided it
complies with the clearly defined requirements expressed in the policies. They read:

“All the informational and actuality programming, whether it is produced by SABC
News or not, should conform to the News, Current Affairs and Information
Programming Policy in Chapter 4.’

This is not the first time the SABC has pulled shows which reveal the failings of
government and the ruling party citing policy violations. Last year we saw the last-
minute canning of a series of live interviews of national interest which were regarded
by the powers that be as potentially compromising the stature of the ruling party.
These include:
An interview with then recently expelled and controversial ANCYL former president,
Julius Malema;
A discussion involving the political editors of three of the most trusted newspapers
on the then upcoming ANC National Elective conference in Mangaung; and
An interview with political cartoonist and satirist Jonathan Shapiro, known to most as

It seems all too convenient that the canning of these interviews, as well as shows
like The Big Debate, come at a time when media freedom and access to information
has come under attack from the legislative arm of government in the highly
contested Secrecy Bill, as well as from President Jacob Zuma himself in his deeply
troubling statements on how the press should be doing its job. The SABC seems to
have happily taken this posture on board with outrageous calls from its controversial
Acting COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, through whom all content now seems to be
controlled for the SABC’s editorial policies to require 70% of all SABC news to be
“good news’.

The soul of the SABC, our public broadcaster, the single biggest communication
medium with penetration into every household with a television or radio receiver is
under threat. It faces the very real risk of total capture and control for the purposes
of masters beyond the public it is required to serve. If we are, at all, to have a
public broadcaster which lives up to the letter and spirit of the hard-won progressive
constitution and legislation which created it, it is our duty, all of us, to fight for it.

Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi is the campaign organiser for the SOS: Support Public
Broadcasting Coalition. Follow them on Twitter @soscoalition and on Facebook. Visit:


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