Gordon Campbell on the censorship wreaking havoc within South Africa’s state broadcaster

Clearly, New Zealand is in no position to criticise the performance of any other country’s state broadcaster. (On Tuesday night, state broadcaster TV ONE lead its 6 o’clock news bulletin with a long report on the Pokemon Go game. Go figure. ) Even so, South Africa’s state broadcaster is in a real mess.

Ongoing turmoil at the South African Broadcasting Corporation threatened to grow into a full-scale insurrection this week, amid a raft of suspensions, gag orders, and widespread allegations about the toxic climate at the embattled pubcaster…

The most recent round of hassles at the SABC have included a bizarre set of decrees handed down by top executives close to the ruling ANC. These demands have included an order to staff that there should be no further negative news about the country’s President Jacob Zuma, and SABC camera operators responsible for choosing camera angles that have allegedly made the President ‘look shorter’ were to be retrained.

An SABC spokesman defended the order….saying that quality footage had to be a “true reflection” of the man in front of the camera.

Overall, 80% of the news coverage of the government now has to be positive.

The public broadcaster will no longer air any negative coverage of the president, according to local newspaper City Press, which quoted an SABC source saying Zuma “deserves a certain degree of respect as president of the country.” It’s the latest in a series of troubling moves by South Africa’s main broadcaster, led by chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

In line with this wave of censorship, top management at SABC imposed a ban on the state broadcaster screening any of the violent images of recent anti-government protests in Pretoria. This decree proved to be a major P.R. disaster, and led to resignations by the acting CEO and the suspension of several staff:

When the capital city was gripped by fiery demonstrations over the upcoming election and rights groups protested outside SABC offices against changes at the broadcaster itself, SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng did not budge. Journalists who questioned him were suspended, while others penned a public letter expressing fear that the SABC is turning back into the propaganda machine it was during apartheid from the 1970s to the early 1990s.

In August, South Africa will be holding local body elections on August. These will provide a crucial grassroots test of the waning appeal of the ruling African National Congress. Evidently, the ANC is well aware of the mounting public backlash against its censorship of the SABC. There are even signs that the ANC could be willing to pull the plug on its minions – including Motseoneng and his top crony in government, ANC Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.

For obvious reasons the ANC has a major credibility problem in posing as a champion of free speech. While enforcing strict subservience at the SABC on one hand, it is also now lamenting the lack of free speech and the censorship policies that this crackdown entails.

Just a week after acting CEO Jimi Matthews stepped down, citing what he described as a “corrosive atmosphere,” the ruling African National Congress (ANC) blasted the broadcaster for censoring its coverage of violent protests in June, with party chief whip Jackson Mthembu saying that “people of South Africa need to be shown these images.

It may be too late for such double talk:

In recent days, media and civil society leaders have organized demonstrations outside the SABC headquarters in Johannesburg to protest the suspension of three staffers who openly questioned a decision not to cover last month’s unrest in the capital, Pretoria. Despite gag orders against those journalists, a growing number of former employees are speaking out about the decline of an institution that has been transformed since its days as a mouthpiece for the apartheid government.

“We worked very hard in those years to make it a proper public broadcaster, [and] to see it going backwards like this is heartbreaking,” former deputy CEO Govin Reddy told Eyewitness News.

For now, the ANC is still safe, electorally. Its rural base remains strong, but there are signs that urban unrest against the failure of the ANC to significantly improve the lot of the urban poor is on the increase.

Nationwide, the ANC still enjoys circa 60% support. In the three urban wards polled in the oink above, it was registering about half that level. The Ecnomic Freedom Fighters party of ANC dissident Julius Malema will be the party to watch. Like many other liberation movements – including the opne oin neighbouring Zimbabwe – the ANC is finding that being in government poses very different (and seeningly intractable) problems.

Zimbabwe Calling

And here from Zimbabwe is one of the bigger hits from the 1990s, by the great Leonard Dembo…