Prof Jane Duncan, Highway Africa chair of media and information society at Rhodes University. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE introduction of tighter editorial controls by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) over its radio talk shows was a "disgrace to independent journalism", Prof Jane Duncan, Highway Africa chair of media and information society at Rhodes University, said on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the SABC announced stricter controls over talk shows dealing with "politics and governance" over its 18 radio stations.

Acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng said the move would achieve centralisation in the way it dealt with issues "in line with the broadcaster’s editorial policy".

The broadcaster has been under the spotlight after allegations that management interfered in decisions over editorial content, particularly those involving the African National Congress’ elective conference this weekend.

Last week, a Metro FM talk show on the media’s coverage of Mangaung was cancelled on the grounds that the ANC was not represented.

However, Prof Duncan said it was difficult not to link the decision to Mangaung, and resembled similar action to control politically sensitive content in the run-up to the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane elective conference. Last month, the SABC acknowledged that former head of news and current affairs Snuki Zikalala had acted improperly in 2007 by blacklisting journalists and commentators seen as hostile to then president Thabo Mbeki.

Prof Duncan said the SABC’s latest step blurred the line between management and editorial control of content, providing a direct line from content to the government.

The move should therefore be seen as a "mortal blow" to the independence of South Africa’s largest news outlines and would only further worsen the country’s decline in international measures of freedom — such as the downgrade of South Africa’s media by New York base monitor Freedom House from "free" last year to "partly free" this year.