- South African press freedom groups are "deeply disturbed" about what they characterise as a growing trend of self-censorship at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). SABC, Africa's freest and most advanced state broadcaster, had decided not to air a documentary that takes a critical look on President Thabo Mbeki and his governance style after having had a meeting with the presidency's communication department.
The Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) today presented its harshest criticism of the South African state broadcaster yet. SABC's decision not to [broadcast] a documentary on South African President Mbeki, scheduled for Wednesday last week, had caused FXI to grow concerned about "growing trend of self-censorship".
Apparently, the documentary takes a critical look at the President's governance style, including what many commentators have referred to as a growing centralisation of government. Several newspaper reports have quoted sources stating that the documentary was canned shortly before it was due to be screened after a member of SABC's management had an informal meeting with the Communications Department of the Presidency, where concern was expressed about the documentary's contents.
Also, the SABC management was said to be "concerned that the timing of the documentary was wrong." President Mbeki has been accused of being behind the demise of former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who was recently acquitted of rape. Management reportedly thus was concerned that a critical documentary may heighten the political tensions in the country.
The Mbeki documentary was advertised during the course of the week before the day that it was to be broadcast. The decision not to air the documentary thus had caused surprise among the public as well. Therefore, FXI says, "the judgement with regard to the Thabo Mbeki documentary needed to be made by the public."
This is the second time recently that a programme slated for broadcast at SABC has taken off the programme at the eleventh hour. The first incident involved an interview on one of SABC 1's most popular talk shows, 'Asikhulume'. Also, a pro-Zuma song was pulled from the SABC's playlist, and the reasons given were vague. Finally, there was an "inept handing of television reporting of the booing of Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka," resulting in an internal investigation.
According to FXI, the editorial decisions the SABC has made recently had clearly demonstrated that the state broadcaster was "pro-Thabo Mbeki and anti-Jacob Zuma" in the current power play between leaders of the ruling ANC party. South Africans are deeply divided on who should be ANC's next presidential candidate and thus the country's next President: Mr Zuma or President Mbeki's protégé Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka.
The Johannesburg press freedom group holds that President Mbeki is trying to use SABC to tilt the South African opinion into his favour. On the course, FXI sees a great "threat to the independence of the SABC," which allegedly has stuck to self-censorship.
The Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa's major opposition party, shared the concerns noted by FXI. A DA spokesperson said SABC needed to give a good explanation to the public on why it had withdrawn the Mbeki documentary. The opposition also pointed to "tensions" in the ANC, saying SABC only was following on its "track record of political compliance."
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