Today the IFJ expressed concern over self-censorship at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) after the broadcast of a documentary on President Mbeki was suddenly cancelled.

“This appears to be interference by the management of a public broadcaster in editorial affairs”, said IFJ General Secretary Aidan White. “The judgement calls about programmes of this nature have to be made by journalists – not politically-influenced managers. The public have been denied the opportunity to see an independent and professional portrait of their President and denied the opportunity to make their own minds up about its value.” The SABC decided not to broadcast a documentary on South African President Thabo Mbeki scheduled for screening on 17 May. According to various sources, the documentary was “unflattering” towards the President.

Newspapers reported that the documentary was postponed shortly before it was due to be screened after a member of the SABC management had an informal meeting with the Communications Department of the Presidency.

Yesterday he SABC management said they cancelled the broadcast because “it may attract legal action.” They said their legal department considered that “the entire documentary was fundamentally tainted by the defamatory matter”.

“The explanations provided by SABC are unsatisfactory”, said White. “The documentary was commissioned by the SABC in the first place and then postponed at the last minute. This decision should have been taken by the editorial team, not by the manager after a meeting with a representative of the Presidency. It suggests a degree of outside interference.”

The IFJ believes that the incident raises new fears over the degree of self-censorship at SABC. “This is not the report of undue restraint on SABC programming. There are real concerns that the station’s editorial independence is under serious threat,” said White.

The IFJ is also concerned at reported threats to prevent the producers of the documentary from speaking to the media after they made public statements alleging that the cancellation was politically influenced. The IFJ believes they should not be gagged but should be allowed to speak about the controversy. “It is unfair for the SABC to be able to comment in the media and not the producers,” said White. “They should be allowed to comment notwithstanding any confidentiality arrangements.”

The IFJ recognises that final editorial responsibility rests with the broadcaster, but insists that editorial judgement should have taken precedence over management concerns not to provoke a negative response from the President.

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The IFJ represents more than 500,000 journalists in over 110 countries