Inside the SABC blacklist report

Mail and Guardian
   Ferial Haffajee | Johannesburg, South Africa
13 October 2006 07:57

The South African Broadcasting Corporation has violated the recommendations of the commission it appointed to probe a blacklist by releasing only a sanitised summary of its findings on Thursday.

Commissioners Gilbert Marcus and Zwelakhe Sisulu said that "it would indeed be abhorrent, and at gross variance with the SABC’s mandate and policies, if practices of the old order were being repeated in the new, with the effect of again disqualifying South Africans from democratic discourse and debate.

"For this reason, we are firmly of the view that this report should be released to the public after consideration by the board.”

The SABC issued a seven-page summary and statement about the ­commission.

The commission’s 78-page report, of which the Mail & Guardian has a copy, is damning. It confirms the existence of an arbitrary blacklist of outside commentators who should not be consulted and says there is a climate of fear in the broadcaster’s newsrooms. It is scathing about the arbitrary decision-making, the iron-fist rule and the lack of editorial knowledge of the news and current affairs managing director Snuki Zikalala.

The report says Zikalala “appears to intervene at a micro-level inappropriate to his level of management … in a seemingly ad hoc and inconsistent manner … and then belatedly attempted to develop policy guidelines in regard to these practices.

The effect of this management style is that rather than voluntary [and presumably occasional] ‘upward referral’ as outlined in the editorial policies, there is a downward micro-management which can only impact negatively on morale, initiative and an appropriate sense of ownership [by journalists].”

“The board, ” recommends the report, “should take close cognisance of the concerns about the particular management style of Dr Zikalala as outlined in this report, particularly regarding problems of communication and the inappropriately narrow interpretation of the SABC’s mandate.”

Read in conjunction with the evidence of Zikalala’s exclusion of commentators, it is clear that urgent action is recommended.

Yet on Thursday both the board and the SABC’s group chief executive, Dali Mpofu, said they had “full confidence” in Zikalala, meaning that he will not lose his job or face other serious sanction.

In the SABC statement, the board “expressed its full confidence in [Zikalala] and his staff, noting that they operate under very difficult circumstances in an environment that is, rightly or wrongly, always challenging the integrity of the public broadcaster”.

While the SABC on Thursday reported that the commission had found no evidence of a blacklist of certain commentators, the commission found that:

Zikalala banned Business Day political editor Karima Brown from the airwaves, ostensibly because he said her credibility had been dented by a report in her newspaper that required an apology. His reason was “unsustainable and inconsistently applied”. He later said she could be interviewed about articles she had written.

The treatment of analyst Aubrey Matshiqi was “simply not objectively defensible”. Matshiqi alleges he was taken off air on Zikalala’s instructions. Zikalala denies this. Zikalala objected to Matshiqi on two counts: that an article he wrote in the Sowetan was an incitement to violence (which the commissioners dispute), and because an analysis of Matshiqi’s had linked the outcome of the Schabir Shaik trial to Jacob Zuma. The commission found this to be “a direct interference with the expression, not simply of a point of view, but one which has dominated political discourse in our country”.

While there was no evidence of an outright ban on journalist William Gumede, the report found that “the judgement passed on Mr Gumede by Dr Zikalala was unfair. While on the evidence it may be true that no instruction was given not to use Mr Gumede, it is inevitable that when views of this sort are expressed by a man in Dr Zikalala’s position, they would be understood and interpreted as amounting to an instruction. This pattern appears to have developed in other instances.”

A direct instruction was given not to use Paula Slier [a freelancer in the Middle East] for improper reasons and in direct conflict with the SABC’s policies and codes.

While there was no evidence of an outright ban on political analyst Sipho Seepe, Zikalala told his editors that Seepe was “very controversial” and that Business Day and the Star “will never use Sipho Seepe”. He considered that Seepe’s articles were “not articles that were building this nation but articles that were undermining the president”. The report says: “We are also profoundly concerned that this attitude to Mr Seepe should be conveyed because of his apparent disrespect for the government and the president in particular. It is not the role of the SABC to represent the government or to shield government from criticism.”

The commission found direct evidence that Zikalala gave instructions that businessman Moeletsi Mbeki, activist Elinor Sisulu and M&G Media CE Trevor Ncube should not be used as commentators about Zimbabwe. Both Mbeki and Sisulu appeared before the commission. “Contrary to Dr Zikalala’s impression that they were out of touch, both struck us as having deep roots and connections within Zimbabwe,” the report says. “This is especially true of Ms Sisulu.” It adds: “We find that there was an instruction given not to use Mr. Mbeki and Ms Sisulu for reasons which are not objectively defensible. We also find that Mr Ncube was directly informed by Dr Zikalala that he could not be used for reasons which are not justifiable.”

On AM-Live presenter John Perlman’s explosive on-air interview with SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago, in which Perlman said he had had experience of bans, the commission found that Perlman’s position “was in conformity with the factual situation”.

The commission found “a number of instances in which instructions were given either not to use a particular analyst or commentator at all, or to use a particular analyst for limited purpose only”, contradicting the broadcaster’s view that there was no evidence of a blacklist.

Of equal concern to the commission was the “phenomenon of self-censorship”. It said: “The view was expressed that the prevailing climate resulted in decisions being taken to avoid the censure, real or perceived, of Dr Zikalala. We do not find these views exaggerated or implausible.”

In its statement, the SABC trumpeted the commission’s view that it could find little evidence that the commentators were excluded because they were anti-government.

But that is cold comfort. Instead, the commission said decisions “defied classification into a coherent political trend”, indicating that they were taken arbitrarily.

It also noted that “what does emerge is undoubtedly a worryingly narrow view of the range of permissible perspectives and qualities of what defines an individual as being approachable for comment and analysis. In turn, this situation restricts the range of views available to South Africans who depend on the SABC to provide them with the information upon which they make their democratic choices.”

While the report says the SABC is within its rights to have a policy on the use of commentators and analysts, it finds that “the blacklisting actions have undoubtedly resulted in a form of exclusion that is not sustainable”.

“The precise terminology should not cloud the issue. The underlying problem is the exclusion of particular individuals … for reasons which are not objectively defensible. Whether one uses the label ‘blacklisting’ or ‘banning’ is beside the point.”

'We had no duty to publish'

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago has defended the public broadcaster’s decision not to publicise the full recommendations of the commission of inquiry into alleged political gagging at the public broadcaster. He spoke to Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

The SABC chose to ignore the ­commission’s recommendation that the report be made public. Why?

I am not going to comment on that. As we said, it was an internal inquiry and there was no obligation to make the report public.

Hasn’t the SABC missed an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to transparency?

We have come out with the report, it is only what transpired at the hearings that we are not making public.

Wasn’t it a waste of time and money hiring a senior counsel and the former group CEO, Zwelakhe Sisulu as commissioners, and then tell us what was already in the public domain?

We wanted to gather information and that is what the hearings did, so it was not a waste of time and money. The group CEO will now apply his mind and make decisions.

How do we know that the group CEO, Dail Mpofu, will do as he says he will?

It is now the responsibility of the group CEO to implement. As he said on radio, some of the recommendations we are already carrying out.

But some you are not implementing …

That is why they are called recommendations. For example the Khampepe commission recommended to the president what was to be done with the Scorpions, but it was for the president to implement. That report has never been made public.

Isn’t the difference that the president never said he would make the findings public?

When did Mpofu say that? His exact words were that he will come back to the public with the findings and that is exactly what he is doing.

Surely he was saying he would announce the findings of the commission?

That is what he is doing. We have chosen not to make the entire process public, for legal reasons. He could have sat with the report and kept quiet.

Could you not have foreseen that by setting such terms of reference, you might not be able to publish for legal reasons?

The issue is not the terms of reference, the choice of those terms was deliberate. If we wanted it to be a judicial commission we would have said “judicial” and if we wanted legal we would have said “legal”.

What happens to news managers when Zikalala tells them not to use a commentator, when Mpofu has given no directive on this issue?

Those issues refer to “upward referrals” and are raised in the statement released. I recommend that you read it. [The SABC statement reads: “No instruction to exclude a particular analyst or commentator; or use a particular analyst or commentator only for a particular purpose; or use a particular analyst or commentator subject to any conditions; should be given without proper motivation in accordance with the SABC’s mandate and policies. Every instruction described in paragraph 18.1 above, shall, if contested, and if the matter remains unresolved, be subject to upward referral to the editor-in-chief. Any person who receives an instruction described in paragraph 18.1 above, shall be entitled to request the reason for such instruction in writing and such reasons shall be furnished without delay. These points should all be incorporated into the editorial policies by the Board, and additional and ongoing efforts should be made to ensure the familiarisation of staff with the editorial policies. Specific instructions ought not to be in realm of the group executive: news and current affairs, whose functions should be restricted to the level of general policy and strategy. The job description should be clarified in this respect.”]

Whose interests have been served by the way the report has been managed, those of the SABC board or the public?

The SABC board and the GCEO decided to release it in the manner that it was. No particular person’s interests were being served.

How Mbeki, Sisulu and Ncube were barred

This is an edited version of a letter sent by Pippa Green, then head of news, to Snuki Zikalala on April 6 last year:

Dear Snuki

I was extremely perturbed by events on yesterday’s Radio News line talk.

[You] threatened to take action against myself and the national bulletin editor, Vusi Sithole, for any “opinion” that is reported on Zimbabwe.

Perhaps your intention was to intimidate the staff into confusion about what they are and are not allowed to report on Zimbabwe.

You expressly forbade the views of members of civil society on the situation in Zimbabwe, naming two specific individuals: Elinor Sisulu and Moeletsi Mbeki. Sisulu is an active member of civil society both here and in Zimbabwe.

As for Mr Mbeki, he is a former journalist and now businessman who also happens to be head of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

You also informed our line talk that you had excised the voices of Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube and publisher Trevor Ncube from a TV report on Zimbabwe, and said that you held the same views about their voices on radio.

Archbishop Ncube, whatever we may think of his view, is the head of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe.

Barring his views on the situation in his own country would be equivalent to barring the views of Archbishop Desmond Tutu on social and political matters here.

Our own editorial code and the goals that we in the news division set ourselves was to promote the voices of civil society in our news and current affairs programmes.

In conclusion if your instruction was not to use Moeletsi Mbeki, Archbishop Pius Ncube, Trevor Ncube or Elinor Sisulu, all legitimate public figures, then I submit that it is so unreasonable to be unimplementable. It would be morally wrong, professionally wrong, and ethically wrong, and violate not only our editorial code but the spirit of our Constitution.

I would be grateful if you could clarify this.

Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely, Pippa Green, Head Radio News

This letter elicited a one-sentence reply from Zikalala the same day:

I don’t think that I will have the time and energy to be involved in such arguments.

The commission reported: “The issues raised in Ms Green’s letter were of fundamental import. They recorded an instruction not to use particular commentators for reasons which were described as professionally and ethically wrong. Dr Zikalala did not attempt to contest the underlying facts in Ms Green’s letter.”

From the desk of Zikalala

These are verbatim quotes from evidence given to the commission by the SABC news chief Snuki Zikalala

On Aubrey Matshiqi: “...the day when judgement was passed on Schabir Shaik, Aubrey Matshiqi said on air, now it’s time for Zuma to be prosecuted on this issue. I sent a note. I said the Schabir Shaik thing is not about Zuma. Aubrey Matshiqi must not bring the Zuma name in here because it’s the prosecutors who will decide whether they prosecutive Zuma or not. Concentrate on the issue of Schabir Shaik, don’t tell the public now that’s over with Schabir Shaik, now we will see what happens to Zuma. Now you’re already building an opinion to ordinary people.”

On William Gumede: “I never said don’t use William Gumede. I said to, I think to one editor...I have a problem with William Gumede. I have not read his book because his book is based on sources. And for [your] information, I was about to employ William Gumede as one of my column editors. But immediately when he wrote [Thabo Mbeki and the soul of the ANC]...I said this man is not reliable because he does not mention (his) sources.”

On Paula Slier:“From the movement where I come from we support PLO. But she supported what’s happening in Israel. And then I said to them Paula Slier we cannot use her on the Middle East issue because we know where she stands. We need somebody who’s impartial.”

Earlier, Zikalala sent out the following directive:

URGENT NOTE: ALL DESKS

The MD of news, Dr Snuki Zikalala has directed that NO MATERIAL OR STORY SUPPLIED BY JOURNALIST PAULA SLIER should be used by SABC news desks until further notice. Dr Zikalala says this instruction applies to all units of SABC news.

On Trevor Ncube: “I had lunch with him, I said Trevor Ncube, every Friday in his newspaper he smashes Zimbabwe, every Friday. So why should I give him a platform on my broadcaster? Because he’s got an opportunity in his newspaper. Let’s get another voice inside Zimbabwe. I said let’s get a different voice, not a Mail & Guardian voice ... I said Trevor ... you should not be used ... because you take information and give it to our people and your information is biased, it’s biased and not balanced.”

This 'amounts to a cover-up'

Commentators said this week that the SABC was failing the public by not releasing the report on the broadcaster’s alleged blacklisting of certain commentators and analysts because of their political views.

Among the excuses offered for why the report would not be released was that it could lead to legal action from those named in the report.

“Frankly this is a very feeble excuse,” Business Day columnist and academic Anton Harber, said. Harber, who wrote in his column this week that the inquiry revealed that Zikalala had broken the broadcaster’s own code of conduct, said the SABC’s actions amounted to a cover-up.

“It is very sad that faced with this test, SABC is closing ranks,” he said.

Jane Duncan, the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said that in failing to release the report, the SABC is violating its commitment to transparency. “The dispute over the contents of the report will only be laid to rest once the public has an opportunity to engage with the contents of the report directly,” she said. “This is giving the SABC an opportunity to ‘spin’ the report, which will do nothing to rescue the credibility of the broadcaster, as the perception will continue of suppression of critical information.

She believed the “selective release of information” was already “backfiring on the SABC. Questions are growing about precisely what information is not being released and why. These questions will not go away until the report is released.”

Zohra Dawood, executive director of The Open Society Foundation for South Africa, said it was “absolutely unfortunate” that the report would not be released, “especially since the group’s executive, Dali Mpofu, had stated that ‘heads would roll’”. — Yolandi Groenewald