Under fire SABC executive, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, likely has the support of President Jacob Zuma – this was the explanation offered by journalist Lukhanyo Calata to MPs on Monday night as to why the former Free State producer was such a powerful force within the public broadcaster.
“Within the SABC it’s an open secret … our understanding is that Mr Motsoeneng has got the support of the President,” Calata testified before a parliamentary inquiry into the affairs of the troubled broadcaster.
Calata was one of the journalists fired earlier this year for openly speaking out against a new editorial policy, which included banning the airing of footage of violent protests.
He was later reinstated, but like his colleagues, known as the “SABC 8”, he testified that the censorship and slanting of news continued at the broadcaster.
Calata recalled several instances where he was called to cover the President in a positive light or where stories were simply not aired for being too negative about Zuma.
African National Congress (ANC) MP Patrick Chauke later said from the explosive testimony from journalists it was clear that the power lies with the Guptas and their The New Age (TNA) publication.
“This is a serious threat to democracy. It is a serious threat not only to democracy, but the revolution,” said Chauke.
“The power lies with TNA. That’s where the power is.”
Chauke was responding to earlier testimony by former freelancer Vuyo Mvoko, a seasoned political reporter and anchor, who said that SABC funds were being used to fund a rival media company.
Mvoko described how SABC infrastructure and staff were used to cover the TNA breakfast briefings, and how the public broadcaster was ceding all the returns to the Gupta-owned media house.
He said Gutpas wanted even more deals with the Sabc that would see their TNA live television breakfast show taken to provinces once a month, with the SABC bearing the costs of broadcasting, staff and logistics.
“A few years ago when I was doing Sunday Live … they came and that had already been agreed to, I don’t know by who … I was summoned to an office to be told from next month, TNA is going to take one week every month to do provincial TNAs,” said Mvoko.
“How that was going to happen was I would stand on stage, do openings, then a second presenter from TNA would go and be with the crowd and everybody else, they would then ask the audience the questions.”
Mvoko described how between 2002 and 2006 his only experience of Motsoeneng was when he was still a producer at Lesedi FM. Motsoeneng would often call Mvoko to do a live Q&A on the current affairs show.
“Fastforward to 2011 when I got back to the SABC, initially my first brief was to do election debates … Mr [Phil] Molefe asked me to do a customary interview with the President,” he said.
“On the day, I saw another side of Mr Motsoeneng. He walked into the parliamentary office. The first thing he said, he didn’t understand … why journalists didn’t stand up for him when he walked in.”
While he was interviewing Zuma, Mvoko said Motsoeneng walked in and waited for the interview to conclude.
“While I was still talking to the President, the door opens and it was Mr Molefe. The way Mr Motsoeneng chased Mr Molefe out of the room … he was chased away like a dog.”
Both Mvoko and Calata said they had not been threatened, but had colleagues who had received text messages warning them to stay away from Parliament.
All four journalists who testified on Monday, including Krivani Pillay and Thandeka Gqubule, said the situation at the SABC had reached a stage where censorship, the slanting of news and “manipulation” of news content had become the norm.
They said all this was done with what appeared to be the approval of the board.
Pillay blamed MPs for not holding the broadcaster to account – something MPs later conceded and apologised for.
“We must take some measure of responsibility for failure to protect and salvage the SABC,” said ANC MP Jabu Mahlangu.
“We have a responsibility to smoke him [Motsoeneng] out to understand what and who are we dealing with.”
The inquiry continues Tuesday morning.