South Africa: Ruling bids to overturn “outrageous censorship” at public broadcaster

South Africa’s Independent Communications Authority has recommended on 11 July that the country’s public broadcaster ditch a controversial editorial policy which banned journalists from covering violent protests. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) welcomed the ruling and called on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to reinstate suspended journalists and lift the threat of disciplinary action against those who were alleged to be in breach of the policy, which the IFJ believes amounts to «outrageous censorship » . The IFJ also called on the SABC to reopen talks with IFJ affiliate, the Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA), who have consistently been excluded from negotiations at the corporation and denied the right to represent their members. As part of its new editorial policy, introduced in May, the SABC had prohibited the “airing of reports about violent protest” and media workers in South Africa had complained of widespread censorship. Three senior journalists who had raised their voices against this negative shift in editorial policy had been suspended by the SABC management, while three other journalists faced disciplinary action for voicing their concerns over deteriorating editorial independence. Whilst the current disciplinary action was suspended yesterday after the ruling the SABC management is threatening to pursue the cases at a later date. Suspended CEO Frans Matlala will appear before a disciplinary tribunal on 12 July. On 11 July, the regulator said the SABC must rescind the policy to ban reportage and broadcasts of violent protest action. The SABC board has to report on compliance with this ruling within 7 days. The board chairman Prof O. Maguvhe maintains that the SABC was "correct and morally right" to prevent children from being influenced by visuals of violent protest activities. The SABC intends therefore to challenge (review) the ruling of ICASA as far as possible including taking it to the Constitutional Court. The complaint was brought by several organisations and coalitions of which MWASA is an active member. On 30 June MWASA was again excluded from formal talks with the SABC. The union has continued to fight the censoring of its voice voice of our independent union and has been part of the protests, pickets and demonstrations outside the SABC headquarters. Two weeks ago MWASA members were physically locked in and prevented from participating in a protected strike. IFJ President, Philippe Leruth said: “We welcome this overdue ruling. The negative shift in editorial policy has been a deliberate attempt to keep the people from knowing the truth. Such outrageous censorship has no place in journalism.” “The SABC as a public broadcaster must be able to uphold its position of independence and neutrality and to broadcast in the public interest without fear or favour. Journalists must be allowed to execute their duties without any form of intimidation and to be able to report on events based on truth, fairness and objectivity. The union must be allowed to represent its members and have a voice in the future direction of the SABC. The suspension of the three senior journalists and the disciplinary action meted out to three other journalists for speaking their minds is outrageous, arbitrary and totally unacceptable”. Tuwani Gumani, the Secretary General of MWASA, said “the banning of dissenting voices, the suppression of independent and professional thought inside the SABC has manifested itself in the wanton censoring of radio and television programmes as well as purging of journalists and their colleagues”. The IFJ calls on the SABC management and the South African Government to respect the ruling and guarantee the people’s right to seek, receive and impart information in line with internationally recognized standards as enshrined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The IFJ also calls on the management of the SABC to lift all suspensions and disciplinary actions against the journalists immediately and unconditionally and to end the exclusion of MWASA.

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