The SABC says it has never been a mouthpiece of the government of the day, that it has the right to set its own editorial policy, and that it was not biased in its 2016 local government election coverage.
This is contained in the broadcaster’s formal response to Parliament’s interim report compiled by the ad hoc committee looking into its board. MPs were considering the response on Wednesday.
The interim report contains witness testimony of alleged editorial interference in the SABC newsroom, most notably from a group of employees called the “SABC 8”.
The group of eight SABC journalists were fired for objecting to former chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s policy of no longer airing footage of violent protests. Seven of them were later reinstated.
The SABC’s response, signed by acting CEO James Aguma, criticised the SABC 8 for not following the broadcaster’s editorial policies.
“The SABC’s editorial independence vests with the corporation and not individual journalists or staff members,” the response read.
No ‘absolute freedom’ for journalists
“Editorial independence does not imply that individual journalists are exempted from the obligations inherent in their employment contracts that require them to comply with the SABC’s directives and editorial decisions made from time to time.
“It is clear that the corporation and its news staff do not have absolute freedom to do as they wish and report irresponsibly.”
While journalists had the right to gather news freely, they also had an obligation not to be subjective due to commercial, political or personal interests, the SABC told the committee.
It said the SABC 8 were “misguided” to think that they “can ignore their employment contracts”, which compel them to work under the policies of the SABC.
Committee chairperson Vincent Smith reminded the public this week that the SABC had been given the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses during the testimony period in December.
The organisation refused and walked out on the first day of hearings.
Their written response was, therefore, not made under oath, Smith said, but the committee would still deliberate on it.
No formal complaints
The broadcaster also defended itself against accusations from Media Monitoring Africa, which testified in December that the SABC’s 2016 local elections coverage was biased toward the African National Congress and side-lined the Economic Freedom Fighters.
In its response, the SABC said it had held meetings with different political parties prior to the elections to discuss any concerns they had.
“The SABC also communicated how editorially elections are covered pre and post elections in line with Icasa regulations, SABC editorial policy, news value, balance, equity, and in line with the Constitution of South Africa on the right to know and to choose,” the response said.
“The SABC used Parliament’s formula to allocate time and slots for political parties to communicate their messages.”
It said the SABC was governed by various legislative and regulatory prescripts, and could not align itself to specific commercial, political or personal interests.
The SABC maintained that it had never received a formal complaint from any political party about the coverage of the elections.
MPs continued to deliberate on the formal responses they had received to their interim report, published on January 27.
They would discuss recommendations later on Wednesday and Thursday after all the responses had been addressed.