OPINIONISTA

William Bird: Message to Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams: Help the SABC – don’t undermine it

This last weekend a government minister sought to prevent an SABC crew from reporting and filming people who held a divergent view at an ANC rally in the Eastern Cape. Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams sought to undermine our media freedom and our democracy in the lead-up to elections. We should all be angry, and we should all demand answers and accountability. This is also about more than one offensive action by a minister; it is about our ability as a country to host free, fair and credible elections.

When a person seeks to prevent a journalist from doing their job it isn’t just an act of censorship, which itself is a violation of the right to freedom of expression, it is also an act that undermines our democracy. I know we are in an election season so we can expect big claims and large promises, but think about it: preventing a journalist from reporting undermines our democracy, there can be no democracy without a free media.

The media has great power to shape narratives and report on our society. As a result, it has almost always been a target for interference. It’s why the Nationalist Party wanted to control the SABC and other media, it’s why more recently Hlaudi Motsoeneng sought to ban violent public protests from being shown on SABC and its why the SABC 8 were threatened and harassed. It’s also why so many of our veteran journalists risked their lives under apartheid to tell the world what was going on. Had the world not known about the 1976 uprisings, Sharpeville, or the death of Steve Biko, it is likely that international pressure may not have been as committed.

The media are powerful and they shoulder great responsibility, and they are often their own worst enemy, but their credibility being undermined isn’t just bad for them and their reputation but for our democracy as well. However, all faults considered, the power and critical importance of our media to our democracy is as vital as free, fair and credible elections. We know that without our media we wouldn’t have a State Capture commission or SARS Inquiry, among others.

We are also entering an elections period, we know the date, but we await merely the proclamation and then one of the core exercises of our democracy builds up to take place. We know in that period that tensions rise, that parties will go all out to persuade the public to vote for them and they will use just about any means to persuade us to vote for them but also not to vote for another party.

As tensions build the likelihood of violence increases. We know from previous experience that, where left unchecked and unengaged, tensions can escalate and lead to the loss of life. The IEC does what it can to help ensure a stable, fair environment and parties all agree to a code of conduct to ensure they play their part too in not escalating tensions. The media too have a fundamental role to play in ensuring that they ask: “What does the public know and what do they need to know?” and reporting on parties, issues and the electoral process in a manner that ensures citizens can make informed choices and thus exercise their democratic rights. Each act of violence has personal catastrophic consequences for those involved but it also undermines our democracy.

We thus have to address any threats to media freedom as any such threats profoundly compromise our nation’s ability to ensure free, fair and credible elections. Currently, there is a range of threats to media freedom. Disinformation, where political actors seek to spread false information with an intent to harm and undermine our elections, is one clear emerging global threat. Media Monitoring Africa is working with the IEC and other partners to help combat this threat – the subject of another column. The economic viability of our media and their sustainability is another clear threat to media freedom. Attacks on credibility and trust in media being undermined is another threat to media freedom. The viability of our public broadcaster is another.

We have known for over a year that the SABC’s financial situation is dire; in fact, the SABC Board had announced in 2018 that they will cease to function by the end of March if they don’t get a government guarantee. Since July 2018 civil society has been pressing Parliament to appoint members to the SABC board; without sufficient numbers, the board is inquorate and cannot make decisions. So the biggest broadcaster in our country, with the biggest audiences, is on the verge of collapse just in time for 2019 elections.

Naturally, government and the various ministers of communication sprung into action and secured a guarantee from Treasury so that the SABC could plan and be sure it could fulfil its public service mandate in the lead-up to the elections – right? Surely they would. Well, they haven’t. But at least the parliamentary portfolio committee on communication is revitalised and they will act swiftly to protect the independence of the SABC by ensuring it is placed deliberately in a governance crisis? I mean surely they would, right? Nope, they haven’t done that either.

In fact, not only have they failed to act, but our President has acted irrationally in allowing board members to resign with immediate effect, so we now have an SABC on the verge of economic collapse, and with no quorate board. The solutions to these issues are not rocket science, nor are they hard, so the question has to be asked as to why the SABC is being deliberately driven into another crisis on the verge of the elections. All you need to do is ask who stands to benefit from an SABC in crisis.

In this context then, leaving aside our other major societal challenges, our Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams decides, for reasons known only to herself, that she has the power to tell the SABC journalists what they can and cannot do. At best it is arrogance to think she has the power or right to act in such a manner, at worst it is deliberate editorial censorship.

The positive aspect to this is that, to its credit, instead of going along with it, the SABC reported the incident and a relatively small difference of opinion at a rally has now escalated to a national issue. It is highly significant that the SABC, which not long ago had to rely on a small band of extremely brave souls to stand up for editorial independence, now stands up to a minister, their own Minister of Communications. The entire news team at the SABC needs to be commended because that decision could not have been easy. It was one they should be proud of. The other less positive aspect is that the minister issued an apology on the same day.

The problem, of course, is that while the minister’s apology mitigates her actions to some degree, we can all be forgiven for being extremely sceptical of her claim to her “unreserved commitment to media freedom”. If we then also consider her actions in light of the SABC economic and governance crises, both of which it must be stressed were entirely avoidable, it means we have real cause to suspect the ruling party of seeking to deliberately place the SABC in crisis just before an election.

The SABC crises and the minister’s action are a gift to opposition parties and they should be encouraged to use it to the fullest extent. More important, we all need to demand action – meaningful action – from Parliament in appointing new board members. The latest story on the SABC is that Parliament is now claiming they need to vet all those whose CV’s they have revived – previously this was only done after they had made the shortlist. This then smacks of further delaying tactics. We also need to demand that the SABC receives its guarantee. It is extraordinary that Eskom, SAA and others can get billions but when it comes to SABC they cannot secure a guarantee.

It is said the simplest explanation is usually correct. How else can the public be expected to interpret the deliberate financial and governance crises, and now attempt to censor the SABC, other than as a deliberate attempt to control the SABC before an election? This year’s IEC campaign speaks of “ek se” which means “listen here”. It’s time we asked our parties to listen here – it’s our democracy, not theirs, if they want us to elect them they need to enhance it, not undermine it. DM

HEADLINE FEATURES

YOUR NEXT ARTICLE