Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) this week introduced tighter controls over talk shows that deal with politics and governance, across all its 18 radio stations, in a move that is likely to draw alarming reactions following recent incidents that signalled editorial interference at the public broadcaster.

SABC acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng said in a statement on Tuesday that the decision would achieve a "centralised way of dealing with issues of a political and governance nature in a coherent and systematic way and in line with the broadcaster’s editorial policy".

This comes after the last-minute cancellation last week of a Metro FM talk-show feature with independent political journalists on the grounds that the governing African National Congress (ANC) was not represented. The interview — which was rescheduled this Monday — was meant to discuss media coverage of the ANC’s national elective conference, which starts this weekend.

Media critics at the time described the explanation as "unconvincing", but the latest decision to centralise final decisions on the content of talk shows signalled the SABC’s determination to brush off criticism.

On Friday, the broadcaster’s suspended head of news and current affairs, Phil Molefe, approached the courts to argue that there had been political interference leading up to his suspension. Mr Molefe was suspended by CEO Lulama Mokhobo earlier this year after a public fallout over editorial policies.

Allegations also emerged at the weekend that journalists at the SABC had "been taken to task" for not airing enough footage of President Jacob Zuma, and for not defending the president against his critics. Claims contained in a letter from a group of "concerned journalists, producers and presenters" at the SABC included that political reporters had been removed from their jobs without good reasons or without due process being followed, and that current affairs producers had been warned that they were too negative about the government.

The letter — which the SABC this week said it had not seen — also said stories involving former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who is among Mr Zuma’s chief critics, had been "treated differently from others".

Last month, the public broadcaster acknowledged that its employees, including former head of news and current affairs Snuki Zikalala, had acted improperly and in contravention of national broadcast regulations after it emerged that in 2007, ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane national conference, journalists and commentators seen to be hostile to then president Thabo Mbeki had been blacklisted.

In a negotiated settlement reached last month, the SABC agreed with the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) that the latter would withdraw its complaint before the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), and the SABC would introduce new "guidelines on the use of commentators, experts and analysts".

Icasa — which initially seemed reluctant to probe the FXI’s complaint but did so following a high court order last year — announced last week that it would investigate the SABC over the alleged blacklisting of certain political journalists on Metro FM.

Lobby group Save our SABC Coalition (SOS) this week renewed its earlier call for the public broadcaster to be turned into a chapter nine institution to ensure its greater independence. SOS working group member Kate Skinner said allegations of interference at the SABC ahead of the ANC’s electoral conference had "undermined" the credibility of the broadcaster.

Mr Motsoeneng said on Tuesday it was important for the SABC’s news and current affairs division "to be the custodian of all the talk shows that are dealing with political and governance issues on all its 18 radio stations".

"This will go a long way in assisting the organisation to be accountable to the public and have proper controls," he said.