MMA Responds to Possible Censorship at the SABC

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Is the advert strong in its critique of the ANC yes?  Is it strategic? It may well not be.  Will it make the ANC very angry? Almost certainly yes, but should the SABC ban it from it’s airwaves? Definitely not and here’s why.

While we question the value and logic of the advertisement’s approach to negative campaigning, and while we clearly have no brief for the DA we find the decision by the SABC to be a wilful misreading of the regulations governing the broadcast of Party Elections Advertisements.

While all parties have signed and agreed to abide by a code of conduct set out by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) it should not mean that we should discourage robust debate and strong views.  Indeed it is during an election period that politicians are more likely to be more strident in their views and critiques of parties.  It is during this time that we expect, as citizens to hear our political parties asserting and putting their views and policies forward, yes the SABC has taken the ability of the voter to decide for themselves whether to accept or dismiss the DA’s critique or not.

The SABC has provided four main reasons for its decision. For such an important decision to be taken it is critical that we evaluate the reasons

The first reason put forward by the SABC is:” It is our view that the reference in your television advertisement to police killing our people is cause for incitement to action against the police services.  In the advert the line used is: “we have seen a police force killing its own people.”  While almost certainly calculated to reflect badly on the ANC, and while it may be a generalisation, given the events at Marikana or the death, (broadcast on SABC) of Andries Tatane at the hands of the police, it can hardly be said to be untrue nor can it be said to constitute incitement to violence. If that were the case the media should not report on any deaths caused by the police or anyone else for that matter.

The second reason put forward by the SABC: “The Electoral Code of Conduct includes a clause prohibiting the publication of false information about other candidates or parties. We believe this can also be extended to information that has not yet been tested and confirmed in a court of law, such as the allegations in your advertisement regarding the Nkandla matter.”  The line in the advert is: “200 million rand has been spent on upgrading the Presidents Private house.” Given that the issue of Nkandla is on the national agenda, and given that it has already been the subject of an Inter-Ministerial Task Team and the Public Protector, and given that the amounts have not at any stage been disputed (except that they are in fact higher than R200million) it seems difficult to argue that the information is false. This objection seems therefore difficult to sustain.

The third reason put forward is that, “the Code of Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA) does not permit attacking another product to promote your own. The ASA does not have jurisdiction over political advertising permitted during the Election Period, but it is our view that the Complaints and Compliance Committee of ICASA, which then assumes jurisdiction, is most likely to apply the same principle.”  Given that we are in an election period which is about making informed choices, where political parties and politicians routinely attack each other’s “product”  it seems most unlikely that this concept would be applied.

The final reason put forward is:”We are also of the view that the SABC will not permit personal attacks on any party member or leader by any other party, as is being done in your advertisement in respect of President Jacob Zuma.  We do not have any concern about generic statements regarding matters such as corruption or lack of service delivery, but do not believe that it is correct to pin such issues on any specific person, whether the President or anyone else.”  There is no justification for the reason other than the statement that “the SABC will not permit personal attacks on any party member.”  This is extremely difficult to sustain given the nature of political rhetoric and occasions where personal attacks by leaders from all parties are reported in the news, as they should be.  What is critical of course is that such statements are not defamatory and that the SABC affords the other parties an opportunity to respond.  In the current instance it is an advertisement and not news and viewers should be credited with the ability to discern between the two.

It is in this context that aside from the legal concerns, (and possible action that may be taken by the DA and others) that we are so deeply disappointed by the SABC’s decision.

 The SABC should be encouraging robust debate, not seeking to limit it. We have seen too many reports in the media in the run up to these elections where different political parties have complained about bias at the SABC.  MMA has monitored the SABC’s coverage of all democratic elections and we are currently monitoring their news and current affairs.  We have noted in all our previous reports how despite views to the contrary the SABC has managed to perform exceptionally well in many instances but also the content of their programming in previous elections has been overwhelmingly fair. (Our elections reports can be downloaded from our website for more detail)  We will soon be releasing a fairness assessment of the news coverage across all media being monitored and will be among the first to highlight concerns around fairness in content should they arise.

 We believe the decision not to broadcast the advert will fundamentally undermine perceptions of fairness of the SABC and we call on them to reverse the decision in the interests of free and fair elections and robust debate.

For more information please contact

William Bird 082 887 1370

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