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SABC in media war

BELOW we publish edited excerpts from an August 31 letter from South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) group CEO Dali Mpofu to Jovial Rantao, chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) in which Mpofu announces

the SABC’s withdrawal from the forum over its stance on the Manto Tshabalala-Msimang medical-records furore.

Our breakfast meeting last Tuesday, 21 August 2007 refers.

I have since been contemplating your request for the SABC to restore its active participation in Sanef …
I indicated to you that despite our strong objections to some of the stances previously taken by your organisation, especially those individuals who can clearly be identified with the dominant right-wing conservative wing of your organisation, my personal belief was that in the new democracy, it was incumbent on all who treasure our freedom not to leave any uncontested space for those who seek to undermine or misrepresent it.

I added that the time for boycotting these institutions was over and that it was a duty of democrats to populate and transform them.

After outlining some of the frustrations we experienced in the past with the unfair and sometimes malicious treatment of the SABC at the hands of your organisation and your members, I accepted your assurances that your new leadership intended to transform the organisation for the better and in turn I promised to revert to you with a considered view as to the extent and nature of our future participation in or cooperation with Sanef …

Coincidentally, the period of my own contemplation of our discussion as well as consultation with the Group Executive Committee coincided with some disturbing developments on the side of your organisation, yourself and the mainstream of your membership core, particularly around the matter of the actions of Mondli Makhanya and the Sunday Times regarding the medical records of the health minister.

This episode has unfortunately rubbed salt into the wounds which characterise the relationship between our two organisations.

Literally on the day of our breakfast I saw you, acting in your capacity as Sanef chairperson, on our evening SABC television news unconditionally justifying the appalling behaviour of the Sunday Times, presumably including their participation in or benefiting from the theft of medical documents …

The following day, Monday, 27 August 2007, happened to be our monthly Group Executive Committee meeting.

I raised the issue of our future participation in Sanef and received the unanimous view that we should terminate and withdraw from any remaining or possible future relationship with Sanef. This was in line with my recommendation to that effect. This decision was yesterday conveyed to and received the full support of our board.
It is clear that Sanef has reached some consensus around a particular conservative, self-serving ideological position on the issue of the role of the media in our society. It is a consensus which is diametrically opposed to our stance, which is based on a contextual interpretation of our constitution and the values underlying our bill of rights, which form the foundation of our freedom and our hard-won democracy.

The nonsensical view that the media is absolutely “free” to trample the privacy and dignity of any citizen offends against the SABC’s own values.

As editor-in-chief of the SABC, it is my duty to inform you that we will no longer stand idle whilst we are being made a whipping-boy and a scapegoat by the profit-driven media.

Even less are we prepared to associate with the enemies of our freedom and our people. We cannot remain quiet while our mothers and our democratically-chosen leaders are stripped naked for the sole reason of selling newspapers. This in Women’s Month!

When you and the Raymond Louws of this world justify criminal theft you must know that you are not speaking for the SABC and the majority of South Africans.

The same people who at the beginning of the year were frothing in the mouth about how soft the government is on crime are now flag bearers for the theft of medical records, which might actually result in endangering a human being’s life and her future treatment!

How inhumane and how far removed from the basic value of ubuntu.

Shame on all of you, especially those who have turned their backs on your own cultural values for 30 pieces of silver, pretending to be converted to foreign, frigid and feelingless “freedoms”.

The parameters of our freedom will be determined by the people who brought that freedom about and not the apologists for those who inherently resent it and its foundational values.

Please note that our decision to break ties with your organisation is based on the epidemic deterioration of journalistic ethics within your ranks and disrespect for our people.

The decision is with immediate effect and will stand until such time that you address these issues openly and to our satisfaction.

Are black editors savages incapable of comprehending the intricacies of ‘foreign’ values such as press freedom? The Sowetan Editor Thabo Leshilo reacts to Dali Mpofu’s comments.

I developed an uncanny ability to detect racist slurs and stereotyping very early in life.

To me, the most demeaning caricature remains that of black Africans as subhuman savages who missed the evolutionary bus.

Sadly, that stereotype persists to this day in the idea that black people are concerned only with fulfilling their immediate basic needs.

And many black commentators perpetuate the backward notion that we black people should not be concerned with such esoteric and European issues as global warming or media freedom. Last week’s letter from SABC CEO, Dali Mpofu, to Sanef is the most explicit display I have yet encountered of the racist notion that genuine concern about the erosion of press freedom is nothing but a bourgeois indulgence or a white pastime.

Freedom of the press was so sacrosanct in our liberation struggle that we enshrined it in the constitution. The SABC bigwigs suggest that freedom of expression is the concern of a few white men, such as veteran media freedom fighter Raymond Louw.

They maintain that those black people who squander time on media freedom in the face of our huge social and economic crisis are the black surrogates of the right-wing enemies of the democratic government.

They count among these surrogates Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee and myself.

Well, things are not yet perfect in our fledgling democracy, even if we have by far the freest media in Africa.

The democratic government recently launched an assault on our media freedom in the form of pre-publication censorship contained in the Films and Publications Amendment Bill.

Let me defer to Oom Ray. “Despite the constitutional guarantees of media freedom in South Africa, there are signs the government and its diehard allies are slowly but surely imitating repressive governments’ ways in their quest to hinder freedom of the media and freedom of expression,” Louw said last year.

“This is reflected in the conduct of their officials in seeking to restrict the media. Access to information is not as readily available today as it was in the glow of 1994, which has rapidly faded.

“We now see spin-doctoring, if not downright lies, when uncomfortable and embarrassing information is to be dealt with, and much withholding of information.”

His observations are glaringly true to all working journalists — and all freedom-loving South Africans should be concerned.

The campaign against media freedom tries to portray independent media as being motivated solely by profit, and therefore unqualified to hold public officials accountable.
Walk lightly there, my friend.

Mpofu forgets that he gorges royally at the public trough.

We in the independent press have to prove our worth to the public on a daily basis.

What’s more, Mpofu seems to forget that SABC advertising revenue comes from commercial enterprises. Another favoured missile launched at the independent media is articulated by Mpofu himself, who says that in a new democracy it is “incumbent on all who treasure our freedom not to leave any uncontested space for those who seek to undermine or misrepresent it”.

In other words, all black journalists and editors should rally behind him in the SABC’s imaginary war against “black haters” who hide behind press freedom to “hijack our democracy”.

Sorry, Dali, I’m unavailable for this intellectual buffoonery.

Similarly, you have only yourself to blame for your inability to understand that Sanef could accept funding from the SABC and still criticise it. That is what happens in a democracy.

Mpofu and his cronies want to ram down our throats their sycophantic brand of “patriotic journalism”.

This non-journalism would have us extol the expertise of the surgeons who successfully implanted Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s new liver to show that we have world-class medical expertise.

The Sunday Times is today the most hated newspaper in government circles because it dared tell the public that she is a convicted thief whose ineptitude has ruined our public health system.

Mpofu tells us that such reporting in the public interest is inhumane and inimical to the values of ubuntu.

He pours scorn on Sanef for defending the newspaper’s right to bring us these stories, saving his worst vitriol for Sanef’s black members, accusing them of having traded their integrity for money and “pretending to be converted to foreign, frigid and feelingless ‘freedoms’”.

There we go again: because we are black, we cannot believe in the freedom of the press, but only pretend to be converted.

We are, after all, savages incapable of comprehending the intricacies of such “foreign” universal values as press freedom in a free society.

•Thabo Leshilo a member of Sanef. He writes in his personal capacity

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