The SABC buildings in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Photo: Jamaine Krige
A report of the Commission of Inquiry into interference in the decision-making in the newsroom of the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation has fingered Cabinet Ministers, SABC Board members and senior executives, as well as mid-level executives who “enforced” the instructions from the top.
The commission, headed by respected media expert Joe Thloloe and lawyer Stephen Tawana, specifically probed the period that now disgraced Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng was at the helm of the public broadcaster.
The commission conducted a five-month inquiry into abuses by senior executives and rampant interference by political leaders in the functioning of the newsroom. The findings are damning.
The introduction to the report reads: “The evidence shows that from the year 2012 up until the year 2017, SABC Executives took instructions from people with no authority in the newsroom.”
“For example,” the report states, “Members of the SABC Board (Ellen Tshabalala) and the Minister for Communication (Faith Muthambi). The Executives thus failed to execute their duties in terms of the Editorial Policies. The commission further found that Nothando Maseko, Sebolelo Ditlhakanyane and Nyana Molete were pivotal to the execution of instructions from Hlaudi Motsoeneng, (Acting Group CEO) Jimi Matthews and Simon Tebele. They succumbed because of threats of dismissal from their immediate superiors.”
The commission found that the SABC suffered from what it called “the capricious use of authority and power to terrorise staff and to deflect the corporation from its mandate and its Editorial Policies”.
However, the report writers have suggested that instead of conducting a clearing-out audit of those involved in the abuses, the SABC should rather concentrate on rebuilding the news gathering culture in the state-owned enterprise.
That’s despite finding the organisation was “crippled by pain, anger and fear; by frustration, anxiety and apathy; and by attentiveness, detachment and helplessness…”
The authors claim that what they call “a witch-hunt” for those involved in enforcing the decisions taken by the COO Hlaudi Motswoeneng and others would be counter-productive.
The report also claims no evidence of a direct link between decisions at the ANC headquarters and the newsroom, but rather states that "the spectre of the ANC hovered over” the newsroom.
The commission also found that the designation of the COO as Editor-In-Chief was not appropriate for the SABC and that these roles should be delinked. Instead, the report says the Group Executive: News and Current Affairs should be designated as Chair of the Editorial Policies and Ethics Committee of the Group Executive. This means that the role rests firmly on the shoulders of Phathiswa Mogopeni, who was appointed to the position in March 2018.
The commission also found a need for a News and Current Affairs Advisory Committee consisting of at least three members. These, they say, could involve a retired editor, a person who is teaching journalism ethics at a tertiary institution and a retired judge.
This type of committee could buffer operational journalists from possible abuses committed by executive management in the future. But the report also says that the corporation needs to recover from a period of severe abuse committed by those who have become known as “enforcers”.
These "enforcers" were staff at various levels used by Hlaudi Motsoening and his associates like then-CEO Jimi Matthews, who would be co-opted into delivering disciplinary letters and other HR-related decisions to staff.
This was deemed deeply abusive and in many cases, counter to the labour laws of the country.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng laughs with supporters in the Labour Court in Johannesburg, shortly before a ruling that found him personally liable for the legal costs of eight journalists fired while he was COO of the SABC. Pic: Jamaine Krige/2017
Both Motsoeneng and Matthews refused to take part in the commission process. The former claimed in a letter that he was being denied the opportunity to take part, even as he rejected offers to make his comments.
The latter, Matthews, refused to discuss the abuses committed by the executive saying that he did not want to “relive the worst time” of his life through a submission to the commission.
“Noteworthy in this process was that major players in this drama – former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Acting Group CEO Jimi Matthews and Group Executive: News Simon Tebele – declined the invitations to tell their side of the story,” the commissioners said.
“It is ironic that a person who had been screaming for a chance to be heard thinks it is logical that he skips it and instead offers a blanket denial," the report continues. "The commission is wondering what he and his legal advisors thought the value of this denial would be.”
Tebele refused to speak to the commissioners, saying he feared he might be assassinated and claiming to have barricaded himself in his home under constant security guard. That following the murder of his friend and former head of SABC Legal Services, Sizwe Vilakazi, in November 2017.
The findings also show a capricious use of authority and power to terrorise staff and deflect the corporation from its mandate.
Included in the process were interviews with hundreds of SABC staff who revealed abuse of power by senior executives, including threats and in some cases, violence. Despite findings showing that enforcers exist at various levels within the corporation, the report states that rooting these out would be difficult.
This had led to a collapse of Human Resource management principles, with relations amongst staff that are poisonous. Decisions about recruitment revealed interference at all levels, both by political and other external parties. One example outlined in the report tells how staff members in KwaZulu-Natal were drawn in to cover specific events by what they describe as “various factions” using their connections to force news coverage.
The interference, in some cases, included direct calls from Motsoeneng himself who would order news editors to cover events, regardless of their newsworthiness. KwaZulu-Natal seems to have been hard hit in particular by this brand of meddling.
When Sihle Zikalala was chairperson of the ANC in the province, Hlaudi would force staff to cover almost ever ANC story and event, especially those of the ANC Youth League.
“They would call the office to a briefing and sometimes they would make them wait for up to five hours. When other media houses left, the ANC Youth League would boast that SABC journalists had no choice but to serve them,” the report states.
The Women’s League is also fingered in this report. At one stage "the Women’s League demanded that an SABC crew go to Nkandla to cover them protecting Zuma’s home. And throughout their four-hour drive, the journalists were shouted at and harassed by women calling them throughout their drive, ordering them to hurry…” Among those women was Sisi Ntombela, who has now taken over from Ace Magashule as premier of the Free State.
Executive producer of SAfm's current affairs shows Krivani Pillay takes part in a protest outside the public broadcaster. Pillay was one of eight journalists fired in 2006 for standing up to editorial interference in the newsroom. Pic: Jamaine Krige/2017
Among other recommendations, the report says a review of the contracts and working conditions of freelance staff is needed, and also states that team building would be beneficial to heal the rifts between staff. Annual training of editorial and ethical guidelines is also on the cards for all employees.
The report concludes by noting that these recommendations offer the broadcaster a chance at healing and to start afresh. Despite the findings, it says the real motives of those who abused power and authority are still unclear. "Was it sheer incompetence, personality disorders or monetary gain? We don't have the answers," the report states.