Business Day, Johannesburg, 11 October 2006

Decision time at SABC as Snuki’s eight blacklist bells toll for him

Anton Harber

THE SABC has been sitting on the report of the Sisulu commission of inquiry into its news operation for more than a week now, debating whether to release it in full or in an abbreviated version.

I am going to save them the trouble.

The report, according to at least two people who have read it, cites eight incidents in which the CEO of news, Snuki Zikalala, broke the SABC’s own editorial code of conduct by restricting the use of certain commentators and analysts for reasons that were not “objectively justifiable”.

It also finds that the statement issued by the SABC, and approved by Zikalala, denying that there was an editorial “blacklist”, was misleading.

It also finds no fault with SAfm presenter John Perlman, who contradicted on air the statement issued by his own employers.

Perlman faced the choice of reinforcing something that he knew was not true or contradicting the statement, it said, and backed him for falling on the side of the truth.

The commission, consisting of former SABC CEO Zwelakhe Sisulu and advocate Gilbert Marcus, was set up by current SABC CEO Dali Mpofu after allegations that Zikalala had ruled that certain commentators and analysts should not be used on air.

The allegations were first published in The Sowetan newspaper which suggested that the “blacklist” was politically motivated. The SABC denied that there was any “blanket ban” on commentators for their political views, saying only that it was discussing a set of guidelines for the use of experts on air.

This was contradicted live on an SABC station by Perlman, who is a respected journalist.

In the ensuing outcry, Mpofu asked Sisulu and Marcus to investigate and said that “heads will roll” if it was found that there was an improper blacklist.

The commission heard evidence from 37 witnesses, of whom 32 were from the SABC, and presented a detailed report to Mpofu last Monday. The SABC board met for two days later in the week and sent the report to a subcommittee for consideration. Their recommendation would have to come back to the full board for a decision on how to respond.

There has been no announcement on whether or when the report would be released, but at least one board member has been asserting that only an executive summary would be published.

It is understood that the damning evidence came from Zikalala himself, who outlined to the inquiry why he had placed restrictions on the use of a number of commentators and analysts and attempted to justify his editorial decisions.

But Sisulu and Marcus found that the reasons for these restrictions were, in at least eight cases, in breach of the SABC’s own code of conduct. While they stopped short of recommending what action should be taken against Zikalala, their finding clearly raises the question of whether he will keep his powerful post.

The finding that the original SABC statement was misleading is clearly also a major problem for Zikalala, as it seriously impugns his integrity as a journalist.

Zikalala, who has raised controversy for his closeness to the African National Congress and his views on the role of the public broadcaster in relation to government, was pushed out as head of news under the SABC’s previous CEO, Peter Matlare.

The SABC board, however, reappointed Zikalala later and Matlare left shortly thereafter.

Now Zikalala’s position presents a headache for the new CEO, Mpofu. If he is to keep to his word, he will have to ask for Zikalala’s dismissal. He has in hand a damning report from two highly respected personalities. But Zikalala has a number of strong supporters on the board, who back his view that the SABC’s role should be to convey — rather than criticise — government policy, and they are likely to fight to retain him.

The head of the board’s news subcommittee, Thami Mazwai, is on record as saying in the midst of this controversy that he wanted the SABC to be “guide dogs, not watchdogs” and he was “extremely proud” of Zikalala’s news operation.

He told the Mail & Guardian that “if a statement impugns the character (of the president), the media must only publish if it has been tested in a court of law”.

This sets the scene for a crucial boardroom battle on the values which drive SABC journalism.

Will the board back its own, highly praised code of conduct, which demands scrupulous journalistic independence, or will it back the policies of Mazwai and Zikalala, who would circumscribe criticism of government leaders and institutions on the public airwaves?

  • Harber is Caxton professor of journalism and media studies at Wits University.


Business Day, Johannesburg, 12 October 2006

Tension at SABC over blacklist report

Rob Rose, Chief Reporter

A DISPUTE looms at the highest levels of the SABC over the unreleased findings of an investigation into whether the public broadcaster kept a “blacklist” of editorial commentators seen as being too critical of government.

One source close to the board said yesterday that “differences within the board of the SABC” over the accuracy of the findings of the probe had emerged.

This came to light following disclosures by columnist Prof Anton Harber in Business Day yesterday that the report fingered SABC head of news Snuki Zikalala for misleading the public over his claim that there “was no blacklist”.

In June, SABC CEO Dali Mpofu ordered the probe, which was conducted by advocate Gilbert Marcus and former SABC CEO Zwelakhe Sisulu. Mpofu had said that if the blacklist did indeed exist, “heads will roll”.

Now the report is understood to have confirmed the existence of such a blacklist, contrary to the SABC’s claims. The findings apparently conclude that the restrictions on the use of commentators breached the SABC’s code of conduct.

Sources in the SABC say a special board subcommittee has been tasked with examining the report, to decide in part whether the findings can be “taken to be accurate”.

“It looks like there are differences of opinion among board members over whether the report is accurate or not. The subcommittee is now looking at the issue,” said one source.

The subcommittee is understood to be headed by SABC chairman Eddie Funde and fellow board member Cecil Msomi.

It is expected to hand its recommendations to Mpofu “within days”, say reliable sources, after which Funde will decide what to do.

The SABC was silent on the matter yesterday, refusing to confirm any of the details. Spokesman Kaiser Kganyago said “the SABC does not want to respond” to media reports, and only once the “processes happening within the board are resolved, will we come back to the public”.

A potential board split over the report, apparently between supporters of Zikalala and others, has ominous political overtones.

Zikalala arrived at the SABC amid much scepticism in 2004, with the perception in some quarters that the former government spokesman was an African National Congress apparatchik, who had been strategically placed to ensure the ruling party received favourable coverage.


Business Day, Johannesburg, Editorial, 12 October 2006

A shameful silence

THERE is no reasonable explanation for the failure thus far of the board of the SABC to release the report of the Sisulu commission of inquiry into the blacklisting of certain commentators by its news division.

The board has had the report, written by respected former journalist and SABC CE Zwelakhe Sisulu and advocate Gilbert Marcus, for more than a week. It was commissioned by current SABC boss Dali Mpofu in the wake of reports that SABC news head Snuki Zikalala had banned his programmes from using at least eight independent commentators.

As was reported on this page yesterday, we know now that the report finds that Zikalala on at least eight occasions broke the broadcaster’s code of conduct by banning commentators his editors and producers wanted to use.

Mpofu is on record as saying that heads would roll if the inquiry found precisely what has been found. We won’t hold our breath waiting for him to keep that promise.

Somehow, Zikalala will survive. He is the journalistic handmaiden of the Presidency in the most powerful editorial job in the country. He serves Mbeki and Mbeki acolytes like Essop Pahad well and the board of the SABC, particularly its powerful news subcommittee, is appointed by the president to prop up Zikalala in his mission. The board is fabulously uninterested in balanced political coverage.

For the moment, the commission’s report is in the hands of another subcommittee whose job it is, apparently, to decide whether the report is “accurate”.

Whatever that may mean, you can be sure it is a ruse to buy time and that it signals the beginning of an attempt to spin Zikalala out of trouble and to protect him from the full consequences of his behaviour.

So the Sisulu report sits there, credible but inconvenient for the Mbeki folk on the board. There is talk that they may release only a summary of it to the public.

First, though, a story must be concocted to justify why it cannot be published in full.

The big question is what Mpofu will do. Can he possibly stay if the report is not published (and soon) in full?

There is compelling evidence that Zikalala would have more powerful support on the board than the CEO should it come to a real fight, and it’s likely that Mpofu is now discovering just how much more uncomfortable it is to serve the Mbeki government than merely to cheer it on from the sidelines.


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