SABC’s reviewed editorial policies aim to stamp out outside ‘interferences’

The SABC offices in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Photo: Karen Sandison / African News Agency (ANA)

However, the current funding model ‘diminishes the ability of the public news service to deliver fully on its mandate and reduces its capacity to tell the South African stories’.

The SABC launched its reviewed 2020 editorial policy on Friday, signifying a change in who is considered the broadcaster’s editor-in-chief.

Speaking during a virtual launch, SABC board member Mary Papayya said the public broadcaster is a crucial pillar of news and information in the country.

She said given its reach to millions of South Africans across all language groupings, an independent, credible, and free SABC is the life blood of democracy.

Papayya said the reviewed editorial policies will enable the SABC to provide unrestrained coverage which is free from political, commercial and any other vested interest.

She said under previous editorial policies, the editor-in-chief role was a function assigned to and carried out by the group chief executive officer (GCEO).

This meant then that voluntary upward referral would go right up to the group CEO in his/her capacity as editor-in-chief, she said.

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“It created interference and it created outcomes that were undesirable and deeply problematic,” Papayya said.

“In looking back, it is common knowledge that at the heart of the struggle of the control of the SABC in the past was the battle for the control of the newsroom.

“It was a traumatic, corrupt and vicious season of manipulation, bullying, cohesion and control through fear and intimidation for the dedicated journalist and staff.

“In the editorial policies being launched today the editor-in-chief’s responsibility changes from the group CEO and is now assigned to the news and current affairs group executive.”

Last year, the SABC released the findings of its year-long investigation into allegations of editorial interference.

Joe Thloloe, veteran journalist and former chairperson of the Press Council of SA chaired the commission of inquiry that looked into the matter.

In the report, the commission found that the public broadcaster “suffered from the capricious use of authority and power to terrorise staff and to deflect the corporation from its mandate and editorial policies”.

From 2012 to 2017, SABC executives “took instructions from people with no authority in the newsroom,” including SABC board member Ellen Tshabalala and former Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi.

In this regard, the executives failed to carry out their duties stipulated in the editorial policies.

The report added that the organisation was “crippled by pain, anger and fear” to the detriment of staff morale.

The report also stated “the designation of the GCEO or COO as editor-in-chief is not appropriate for the SABC”.

But during the launch, Papaya said the new editorial policy is part of a well-considered effort to strengthen editorial controls in the newsrooms and ensure that journalists take full accountability of editorial and programming decisions without interference.

She said the new arrangement means the GCEO designates responsibility and holds the news and current affairs group executive, currently Phatiswa Magopeni, accountable for the following:

  • The credibility of all news-related content and programming in all news services;
  • The protection of editorial independence and the impartiality of the newsroom;
  • The preservation of the editorial integrity of the public news service; and
  • Strict observance of the editorial policies of the SABC and exceptional delivery under public mandate .

Papayya said the news and current affairs executive, now considered the editor-in-chief, will be accountable to the Group CEO for the overall performance of SABC news.

The ultimate editorial decisions now rest with Magopeni.

Papayya added there would be no upward referrals handled by the group CEO.

“The news and editorial subcommittee of the SABC board has full confidence that the 2020 editorial policies will provide the best possible guidance to our editorial and production teams in delivering inclusive, compelling, credible content with absolute impartiality and without fear or favour.”

Meanwhile, Magopeni, has raised concerns regarding the current funding model of the SABC.

She said: “The real and obvious danger to the credible, independent public service journalism in South Africa is the current funding model of the SABC.

“When the delivery of public mandate content get determined by market factors, due to a lack of political and social will to fund, it puts the transparency and accountability required for resilient… democracy at great risk.

“It diminishes the ability of the public news service to deliver fully on its mandate and reduces its capacity to tell the South African stories in its completeness.”

She added, public mandate content needs committed financial support.

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