Late last year, the SABC in South Africa announced that it would be taking steps to centralise the “editorial direction and control of all the talk shows” that cover politics and governance issues, on all radio stations, into its News and Current Affairs department. This obviously has far reaching implications both from a production perspective as well as from the point of view of listeners.
The beleaguered public broadcaster has found itself on the ropes often recently, particularly since the governing political party in South Africa, the ANC, has been placing increasing pressure in terms of what is reported and how. This follows much media attention being brought around corrupt practices and often violent protests against inadequate service delivery.
What is concerning about this particular classification is that it is likely to affect almost every talk show that is likely to challenge political and governance practices. Not only will this stifle some much needed debate against the ANC, it will also serve to hide serious issues around the likes of crime, police brutality, corruption, gender inequality, racism, the public health and education systems, the controversial e-tolling system and more. If such directives are implemented together with the Protection of Information Bill in place, there will be significantly reduced transparency and much more opportunity to hide corrupt practices.
The monopolistic environment around broadcasting in South Africa implies that there are also further implications around freedom of speech in the country. For example, does editorial control include screening callers that might have sensitive views on the topic at hand? And if such callers do manage to get through, will the producers and presenters be likely to shut down the call for fear of violating the directive?
To aggravate matters, many current affairs programmes such as Special Assignment have experienced significant budget cuts over the past year. The additional administrative burden of this directive is likely to drain resources even further, providing the public with a substantially diminished service.
The irony, of course, is that the SABC’s existing editorial policies on programming states that:
Freedom of expression is at the heart of our programmes. We provide a home for programme makers that encourages them to innovate; to take risks and to develop their craft so that audiences may be given a rich diversity of top quality programmes.
Clearly this move will have implications undermining both freedom of expression and the potential for innovation. It is noteworthy that an anonymous letter written by SABC reporting staff and producers strongly highlighted their fears regarding political interference at the local broadcaster. One can only hope that these concerns will be addressed in what is now a long overdue SABC editorial policy review. If there is a legitimate concern over the fairness and balance of talk shows, it would seem that the existing review process would be the best platform to address these inadequacies rather than implement a blanket directive that negatively affects the most numerous of stakeholders.
Many SABC staff however are less than hopeful with one protestor jokingly suggesting that she had more chance of winning whilst online gambling in South Africa than she had of effecting the smallest policy change within the SABC. Since the directive has already been implemented, the public will for now have no choice but to monitor the situation and hope that any political interference will be exposed outside the traditional channels.