Censor-in-chief can't cover up the flaming issues

Hlaudi Motsoeneng has been allowed to step over the line and he needs to be reined in by the people who placed him there, writes Ryland Fisher.

It would have been a good time to write about the significance of the Freedom Charter, which celebrates its 61st anniversary this weekend. It was adopted at the Congress of the People at Kliptown, Johannesburg, on June 26, 1955 after two days of deliberation by thousands of delegates from across the country, and still has relevance today.

If you were watching SABC News, you would not have known Pretoria was subjected to some of the worst protests we have experienced in our democracy, says the writer. Picture: Oupa Mokoena. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

But after watching the scenes unfolding in Tswhane, where there was mass destruction of property, apparently after protests about the ANC’s choice of mayoral candidate, I had no choice, but to write about what we are not seeing on the SABC news services.

The reason for this is because, if you were watching SABC News this week, you would not have known Pretoria was subjected to some of the worst protests we have experienced in our democracy. The protests started even before the ANC announced they were bringing in an outsider as their mayoral candidate for this crucial municipality, but escalated soon afterwards.

The ANC initially blamed the protests on hooligans and said there was no evidence members had been involved, and all the parties who’d been implicated claimed innocence. The protests, which appeared to be based on factionalism, quickly spread to several townships in Tshwane.

While the country’s capital was burning, the SABC pretended nothing was happening. To the credit of staff at the SABC, they did try to report on the protests, but, in line with the recent policy announced by the chief operating officer at the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, they were not allowed to show footage of protests. The best they could do at first was to show some talking heads discussing the protests. Later they showed visuals of people congregating, but not really doing anything.

I have previously praised Motsoeneng for being brave enough to impose a 90 percent local content rule for music on all SABC radio stations, something which I still support.

I believe it could revitalise our ailing music industry. I’m not sure if I agree with the same rule for television, but that’s another subject altogether.

I cannot support his decision not to show protests on SABC television channels. I also cannot support his decision to ban the reading of newspaper headlines on television and not to allow open-line call-ins from listeners.

It appears to me to be a knee-jerk reaction to protests against the ANC government. Anyone who has ever been an activist knows you do not stop protests by pretending they are not happening. The only way to deal with protests is to deal with the issues making people unhappy.

For instance, if the protests are about service delivery then the only way to stop them is by delivering proper services.

You cannot stick your head in the sand and hope they go away.

Censorship has never helped anyone. It leads only to ignorance and we all know how dangerous ignorance can be. There are many people who today claim to have been ignorant about what was happening under their noses during apartheid.

We have come too far as a country and too many people have sacrificed for our freedoms for them to be taken away because some people fear dissent.

Instead of trying to silence critical voices, the government and the ANC should be trying to listen to why there is criticism, even from people who are not usually critical. Why are more and more people who used to be loyal to the ANC speaking out about things that are wrong inside the organisation? Not everyone who criticises the ANC is in bed with the opposition.

If Motsoeneng really wants to help the ANC, he should not be trying to censor news and viewpoints. Instead, he should be encouraging discussion between who essentially want the same thing for our country - for it to prosper.

He should be encouraging his journalists to investigate the causes of violence and looking at ways in which concerns can be addressed.

The role of the media in any vibrant democracy is to interrogate what is going on, not only to report on it. This is a role we performed even under apartheid when we were not allowed to report on certain things in terms of the law and not at the whim of someone who thinks he is more powerful than the organisation that he represents or the people he purports to serve.

I agree there are way too many outlets for negativity in the media space. However, the way to deal with this is not to pretend negativity does not exist, but rather to try to understand why it is there.

An adage says where there is smoke, there is a fire. You cannot have so many unhappy people in democratic South Africa without a reason; you cannot have so many people protesting merely because they saw others doing it on television.

There has to be a reason for the protests, not only the ones that those happened this week, but the ones over the past few months which encouraged Motsoeneng to become censor-in-chief.

I am not one of those parrot-style critics of Motsoeneng who believes he should be fired because he does not have qualifications. I believe if you are capable, you should be allowed to do the job, irrespective of qualifications.

However Motsoeneng has been allowed to step over the line and he needs to be reined in by the people who placed him there in the first place, before it is too late and he does even more damage to what should be a prestigious public institution. And to our democracy in the process.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 25 June 2016)