Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) welcomes the long awaited launch of the SABC’s Editorial
Policies. While delayed, they represent a significant commitment to editorial
independence. The new policies will frame a bold approach to the SABC’s public service
mandate, and in particular its news and current affairs content.
The previous policies contained some incredibly progressive elements, including those
sections that dealt with protecting and respecting children’s rights. The sections were
important as they dealt with the most vulnerable and marginalised group in South Africa.
They are also important as they help set the bar for the highest standards of editorial
standards and practice. Not only have core principles been retained, but children are given
special attention under the overall guiding principles. We choose to highlight this element
ahead of the other key shifts in the policies because they signal a fundamental shift in the
approach taken in these policies to the SABC’s public service mandate, and to adhering to
the highest ethical and editorial standards. This may sound like an obvious point for a public
broadcaster but it was only a few years ago that it took a formal complaint to ICASA over a
decision to ban showing public protests (submitted by MMA, the SOS Coalition and the FXI),
to remind the SABC that its default should be to the highest ethical and editorial practices
and not the lowest.
One of the most critiqued aspects of the previous policies, around upward referral, has also
been rectified. Previously the editorial buck stopped with the GCEO, who was then
responsible as the final decision maker for editorial decisions – this was abused by previous
GCEO’s and then illegally changed and abused, under Motsoeneng, to be the COO, where he
sought to also apply not just upward referral, but downward as well. The new policies have
made, what we support as the correct decisions, that the Head of News is the Editor in Chief
and the editorial buck now stops there. This makes sense from a news and current affairs
perspective as she should be the one who takes the final decision on the News and Current
Affairs direction of the SABC.
The policies have also mentioned the SABC Board Subcommittee on News and Current Affairs, who not only have a clear role to play in the protection of the SABC’s editorial independence, but also have to exercise an oversite role in ensuring adherence to the SABC Editorial policies. The shift isn’t then simply to making the Head of News the final decision-maker but the express inclusion of the SABC Board with a positive obligation on the Board means that they can be held accountable in Parliament and by ICASA if they fail to protect the editorial independence of the SABC.
We had, in our submission, made a proposal for an SABC Ombud to address complaints
independently. At the launch of the policies the SABC made it clear this had been
considered but they felt the additional mechanisms, including the BCCSA and Press Council,
meant the position would only add complexity and was not necessary given the other
elements included. Time will tell if this was the correct decision. What gives some
consolation is that the new policies also include a process for complaints about violations of
the editorial policies themselves.
In addition to this there is also, for the first time, explicit recognition of the Press Council and the SABC as signatory to it, which means complaints about the SABC content can, where appropriate, be brought before the BCCSA or the Press Council. One of the biggest weaknesses with the previous policies is that they were not enforceable in any way internally. During the launch, SABC executives spoke of using standard disciplinary procedures to help enforce compliance.
Another significant shift in the policies has been the move to digital. Previous versions of the
policies made little or no mention of digital media, both in terms of understanding SABC as
content producers (instead of purely broadcasters), or indeed having a dedicated section.
The new policies stand out as having not only sections on social media for SABC employees,
but also speak to the SABC in the broader context and access to information and universal
access. It is also clear that these policies seek to frame the SABC as shifting to a digital
future, where terms like platforms and content have taken the place of broadcast unique
While the policies may not have included all recommendations, there can be little doubt
that these seek to firmly break the SABC from its 2016 period where clear efforts to
undermine its editorial independence and credibility were routinely practiced, enforced and
endorsed by people at the highest levels of the organisation. These policies set the
framework for a public broadcaster that not only seeks to adhere to the highest ethical and
professional standards, but also seeks to do so in a manner that is alive to the context in
which it operates, where the SABC will seek to tell all our stories, reflect diverse views and
voices, and does so in a manner which entrenches the rights in our constitution.
The SABC editorial policies in many respects have set a very high bar not just for public broadcasters, but all broadcasters. The challenge for them is to ensure they can produce equally
comprehensive ethical polices. The real challenge for the SABC now is to ensure that these
move from being policies in a document to a living culture within the organisation. After all,
we can have great policies but if people don’t know about them or seek to adhere and
practice their principles, their power is hugely diminished. Madam Editor in Chief, we wish
you all the best, we will ensure we continue to fight for the SABC as our public broadcaster
and challenge and critique strongly when we need to. Now to make the policies live…
For more information please contact:
William Bird (MMA Director)
Thandi Smith (Head of Programmes)