Attack exposed the SABC

Africa’s News Leader, that’s SABC TV’s boast.

It’s as brassy a lie as Johannesburg’s “Joburg: A world-class African city”. The Kenyan shopping mall siege, played out over four agonising days, showed that a slick slogan doth not necessarily a credible credo make.

South Africans were reminded that state television is lamentably poor at independent news gathering. Those without access to social media or satellite channels by far the best coverage was from Sky News, followed by eNCA were pretty much in the dark.

That’s pathetic, given the hundreds of millions the SABC spends on three terrestrial channels, recently augmented with what purports to be a 24-hour news channel. But it turns out that “Africa’s News Leader” doesn’t even have a Nairobi bureau, instead relying on a single local stringer to cover the whole of East Africa.

At one stage all the major international channels had abandoned scheduled programmes in order to run live coverage from Westgate Mall. SABC viewers, however, had to be content with flicking between Gospel Gold, Nanny 911 and the A-Team on its terrestrial channels, while on the 24-hour news they had to watch endlessly recycled, blurred footage from two days earlier.

It might be that this farce is not just another example of SABC incompetence. Conceivably, it’s based on its commitment to sunshine journalism, with at least 70% of bulletins devoted to “good” news.

Nevertheless, it was not an unmitigated disaster for SABC TV. The inadvertently flattering result of the politically connected Gupta family launching the African News Network (ANN7) is that at last there is a local network worse than SABC-TV.

The apparently unstoppable haemorrhaging of revenue and viewers at SABC TV should serve as a warning to the Guptas. Even a virtual monopoly is not enough to force people to rely on your news offerings at a time when social media provide easy and relatively inexpensive alternatives.

A major drawback of social media is the uneven quality of the information: much of what swirls about is rumour and speculation.

On the other hand, social media has the virtue of making censorship futile and government spin difficult, increasingly making it the public’s first stop for information at times of national crisis. The Kenyan authorities tried hard to keep control of the information flow, imploring Twitter users not to speculate but “wait for the official communication”.

Unfortunately, official statements were infrequent and mostly misleading. Official sources consistently painted a rosier picture of events than what turned out to be true.

Kenyan authorities claimed repeatedly that all the attackers had been neutralised and all hostages released, only to be immediately contradicted by tweets from ordinary citizens on the spot and from accounts apparently run by Al-Shabaab, the terror group responsible.

Democracies demand speedy, trustworthy journalism. Neither Al-Shabaab tweets nor, sadly, SABC-TV news broadcasts, measure up.


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