The decision by veteran broadcast journalist Jimi Matthews to quit as acting CEO at the SABC citing what he called "the corrosive atmosphere" prevailing at the broadcaster has roiled the institution. While civil society has welcomed his decision, the ANC said his comment was part of what it claims is a "concerted effort" to smear the good name of the public broadcaster.
In the last week three top presenters were suspended for refusing to toe the new "no violence on TV" rule imposed by its COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Economics editor, Thandeka Gqubule, RSG executive producer Foeta Krige and senior journalist Suna Venter were suspended after questioning the policy.
The SABC has been quick to announce its new acting CEO, James Aguma, who's presently the public broadcaster's Chief Financial Officer, as Matthews' replacement. Born in Uganda and trained by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Aguma spent more than eight years as South African Auditor General before moving to the SABC in 2013. Aguma, who's a chartered accountant, was installed as CFO at the SABC early in 2015. According to the broadcaster on Tuesday 28th June, the board met and promoted the CFO with immediate effect. Board Chairman Professor Mbulaheni Maguvhe presided over the meeting and reports published by IOL suggest he blamed social media for the perception that the SABC was in crisis. Ironically, the SABC's own Twitter account was used to broadcast the decision to promote Aguma.
Professor Maguvhe also revealed that Aguma traveled to China last week to "learn how broadcasters inform their audience." Beijing's policy on the freedom of speech is dubious at best - it's policy of shutting down social media platforms has led some to dub its digital strategy "the Great Firewall of China". Motsoeneng has been quick out of the blocks, already telling journalists that any critical coverage of the SABC amounts to what he called "propaganda" and denying at a media conference on Tuesday that the SABC was censoring reports.
"What is this censorship thing?" he said "It is english so I don't know it. There is no censorship here."
The clamp down at Auckland Park has already seen the Right2Know campaign leading protests against management in Johannesburg as well as Durban and Cape Town, while the opposition DA protested outside the SABC Auckland Park HQ on Tuesday 28th June.
The Right2Know campaign wants the ban on protests by Motsoeneng to be overturned, while inside the SABC, Special Assignment executive producer Busisiwe Ntuli, SAfm Current Affairs executive producer Krivani Pillay and investigative reporter, Jacques Steenkamp, have delivered a joint letter to management. In it they state:
“Our newsroom has become a source of derision, despair and criticism from the people that we are fundamentally accountable to, the public at large."
The three say that recent decisions to stop talking about newspaper headlines on AM live amounts to censorship. They've demanded that an urgent meeting be scheduled with Motsoeneng to discuss what they say is an embarrassing policy forced on journalists at the public broadcaster. While the SABC is officially denying any sign of crisis, the fact that the broadcasters' most senior and respected news staff have gone public with their concerns may be another sign that the challenges facing the SABC may run deeper than the official line suggests.
There are now legal challenges to the management decision to black out coverage of protests in South Africa. Civil Society group Sanco spokesperson, Jabu Mahlangu has also issued a statement calling on the SABC Board "... to go back to the drawing board and strategies so as how it is going to minimise instability and the possible knock-on effect of the resignation (of Jimi Matthews)."
However its the letter written by the three senior staff in current affairs that are going to be difficult to deflect.
“We are shocked by the latest pronouncements that fundamentally erode the right of the public to know the whole story about the developments in their communities and to display such stories in a responsible manner, as has been done as per the ICASA and BCCSA requirements" the three said.
The implied comment is that the SABC is licensed via ICASA and recent policy developments may fall foul of those conditions. For South Africans, having a properly informed news analysis is particularly important as the country heads towards its local government elections in August.
Matthews issued a warning to the SABC as he departed, saying Motsoeneng's ban on coverage of protests would "...fundamentally erode the right of the public to know the whole story about developments in their communities. These pronouncements effectively render our newsrooms incapable of providing compelling audiovisual content that educates and informs the public and disseminates balanced and accurate information."
Motsoeneng has reacted on twitter by saying that he was the one who installed Matthews as acting CEO in the first place.