Communications

The op-ed the New Age refused to publish

Note: The New Age last week refused to publish this opinion piece, despite originally offering to publish an 800-word rebuttal of an article the DA complained to the Ombudsman about in February. This is the second time that The New Age reneged on a commitment to deal with the complaint

By Gavin Davis

If you are reading this in a copy of The New Age, you are probably an official in a government department. Because we all know that government subscriptions make up the bulk of copies of The New Age distributed. Few people actually buy The New Age.

This is why The New Age refuses to become a member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations of South Africa (ABC), an independent organisation established to provide accurate and comparable circulation figures. The owners of The New Age don’t want people to know just how dismally it performs in the marketplace.

On 2 March, The New Age opted out of another body that mainstream newspapers subscribe to – the Press Ombudsman system. The Office of the Press Ombudsman is an independent entity mandated by The Press Council to ensure fair and accurate reporting in accordance with The Press Code.

The New Age’s withdrawal from the Press Ombudsman followed a DA complaint to the Ombudsman regarding a front-page article published on 2 February. The article, entitled ‘DA sees conspiracies where there are none’, was designed to discredit the DA’s claims that government advertising expenditure is skewed in favour of The New Age.

The article breached at least four sections of The Press Code because it:

  • Failed to reflect a multiplicity of voices;
  • The reporter did not attempt to solicit the views of the subject of critical reportage;
  • The headline presented the opinion of Minister Faith Muthambi as fact; and
  • The reporting was slanted as a result of political and commercial considerations.

There is no doubt that the timing of The New Age’s withdrawal from the Ombudsman system was related to the DA’s complaint. As the Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, said: “Now, when we got the complaint about The New Age from the DA, The New Age was quite reluctant to respond to the complaint and when we contacted them, they sent a note stating they are pulling out of the system.”

In other words, rather than face the prospect of publishing a retraction and an apology, The New Age opted to pull out of the Press Ombudsman system altogether. In a statement on the matter, the CEO of The New Age, Mr Nazeem Howa promised to deal with the DA’s complaint “through an independent third party.”

When I forwarded the complaint to The New Age, the newspaper offered me an 800-word opinion piece to respond to the article in question. This is hardly a satisfactory resolution because it means that The New Age can avoid the embarrassment of apologising and retracting the story.

The alternative, however, was to wait three or four months for The New Age to appoint its own ombudsman to deal with the complaint. Even then, there is no way that an ombudsman appointed by The New Age, and on the payroll of the New Age, can be either independent or a third party. Under these conditions, the chances of a fair adjudication are nil.

So, let me take this opportunity to set the record straight.

The New Age is owned by a family with close links to President Zuma, and its editorial policy is to publish stories that present the Zuma administration in a positive light. SABC Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng described The New Age’s editorial policy at a New Age Breakfast Briefing on 13 February:

“We as the public broadcaster, we are different to New Age but, at least, while we have this relationship with New Age, they share the same views with us: 70% good story to tell. And we must do that.”

Motsoeneng went on to berate Cabinet Ministers who still advertise in independent media outlets: “I don’t understand why you are spending money on people who are not even appreciating what government is doing,” he said.

These sentiments are not new. It was back in 2011 when then government spokesperson, Jimmy Manyi, declared that government-friendly media outlets would be rewarded with a greater share of government advertising expenditure.

This explains why the Department of Communications spent R 10.2 million or 11.2% of its advertising budget in The New Age in the last financial year, despite its small readership of 153,000 people. By comparison, significantly less (R 7.8 million) was spent on the Daily Sun, for example, which has a readership of 5.3 million people.

The New Age supports the government, so the government supports The New Age. But this is not government’s money to do what it likes with. Your hard-earned tax money – money that should be spent on healthcare, housing and schools – is being used to keep this propaganda pamphlet afloat. In the end, the only consolation is that relatively few people read it.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications

 

Muthambi’s hostile takeover of the SABC

By Gavin Davis

In recent months we have seen an intensification of the Zuma faction’s campaign to capture key state institutions to protect the President from prosecution. The attempted purge of the Head of the Hawks, the National Director of Public Prosecutions and senior South African Revenue Service officials have sent a chill through our body politic.

While these stories were dominating the headlines, another attempt at state capture was insidiously underway. On 26 September last year, Zuma-loyalist and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi quietly signed a document giving her overarching control of the SABC. This Memorandum of Incorporation turns the SABC from a public broadcaster into a state broadcaster, completing the Zumafication of the SABC.

The Memorandum allows Muthambi to usurp the Board’s power in numerous ways, including giving her the right to veto any rule change proposed by the Board relating to the governance of the SABC. This is in clear contravention of the Broadcasting Act, which states that the Board “controls the affairs of the Corporation.”

The Memorandum also gives the Minister new powers to recommend the removal of Board Members. Again, this is in breach of the Broadcasting Act, which empowers only Parliament or the Board itself to recommend the removal of SABC Board Members.

Perhaps even more alarming is how the SABC Board’s authority over its Executive Directors (Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operations Officer and Chief Financial Officer) has been curtailed. The upshot is that Zuma’s henchman, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, is now untouchable at the SABC despite the numerous scandals that should have ended his career some time ago.

In terms of the Memorandum, Muthambi now has the power to make Motsoeneng the Acting CEO and keep him there for as long as she wishes. If Muthambi wants Motsoeneng to be appointed as the permanent CEO, she can waive the requirement that the position needs to be advertised and other candidates shortlisted. Then, if Muthambi wants to re-appoint Motsoeneng when his contract comes to an end, she can do so unilaterally.

If the Board decides it wants to discipline and/or suspend Motsoeneng, as the Public Protector directed it to do last year, Muthambi can now block the Board from doing so. And, to give Motsoeneng the best chance of surviving the DA’s court case challenging the legality of his appointment, the Memorandum makes the SABC liable to pay his legal fees.

All these amendments to the SABC’s Memorandum of Incorporation were made without discussion with the Board, and against the wishes of many Board Members. Meanwhile, Minister Muthambi has already begun using her newfound powers to bully Board Members who do not toe the line. In December last year she wrote to certain Board Members asking them to give her reasons not to have them removed from office. Board Members perceived as too independent are reportedly being targeted and victimised.

This Memorandum of Incorporation is only the first part of Muthambi’s plan to neuter the SABC Board. Shortly after assuming office last year, Muthambi raised eyebrows when she announced that she wishes to reduce the number of SABC Board Members and to change the way the Board is appointed. This year she will table legislation that will “clarify” her powers as Communications Minister, reduce the size of the board from 15 to 7 and revise what she calls the “current cumbersome process” of appointing the Board. Ominous indeed.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this ‘hostile takeover’ poses the gravest threat to SABC independence since 1994. But it must not be viewed in isolation. Make no mistake; the attempted seizure of independent state institutions is a concerted effort to protect one man. Our constitutional democracy has never looked so fragile.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. A version of this article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 11 February 2015.

The Zumafication of the SABC

By Gavin Davis

Hlaudi Motsoeneng is the ‘big man’ of the SABC – protected and promoted for protecting and promoting an even bigger man, President Jacob Zuma. But Hlaudi Motsoeneng is just the most visible manifestation of the ongoing ‘Zumafication’ of the public broadcaster. Behind the scenes, Zuma’s allies are attempting to construct a powerful propaganda machine that places the SABC at the centre of its plans to manipulate public opinion.

To be sure, the politicisation of the SABC started some time before the ascendance of Zuma. In the latter years of the Mbeki Presidency, the SABC increasingly took sides in the fierce factional battle between Mbeki and Zuma. Political commentators critical of Mbeki were blacklisted and candid documentaries on the President ended up on the cutting room floor. The SABC’s Head of News Snuki Zikalala made sure that footage of Zuma’s supporters booing the new Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, never made it on to the prime time news.

After Zuma’s election as State President in 2009, the ANC in Parliament rushed through the Broadcasting Amendment Bill. This enabled it to replace the SABC Board with an interim Board that would make executive appointments sympathetic to the Zuma faction. The interim Board’s first order of business was to appoint Solly Mokoetle as SABC group Chief Executive Officer.

In 2010, the Chairperson of the new SABC Board, Dr. Ben Ngubane (a Zuma appointee) connived with Mokoetle to appoint Phil Molefe as Head of News, without consulting the rest of the Board. Molefe did the job he was appointed for, telling senior executives at the SABC – allegedly at the instruction of Luthuli House – to stop giving favourable coverage to Mbeki.

In 2011, the Ngubane Board appointed Hlaudi Motsoeneng Acting COO of the SABC. Motsoeneng’s first brush with controversy had been back in 2007 when, as an Executive Producer at Lesedi FM, he was dismissed following charges of racism, dishonesty, and promoting staffers without following due process. Motsoeneng was re-appointed a year later by SABC Chief Executive Dali Mpofu in what was perceived as caving into pressure from the ascendant Zuma faction. This was not the last time that higher powers would come to Motsoeneng’s rescue.

In early 2013, the SABC Board resolved to dismiss Motsoeneng as Acting COO after he allegedly tried to interfere with the handling of an SIU investigation into SABC corruption dating back to 2008. Shortly after, SABC Board Chairperson Ben Ngubane unilaterally reversed the Board’s decision to dismiss Motsoeneng. In retaliation, the rest of the Board publicly reaffirmed its decision to dismiss Motsoeneng. The fall-out from this disagreement would lead to the resignation of Ngubane, along with most of the Board – allegedly at the behest of Luthuli House. The new interim Board immediately voted to reverse the decision to remove Motsoeneng as Acting COO. This was the second time that Motsoeneng was to miraculously survive at the SABC but not the last.

In November 2011 two senior SABC employees had requested a Public Protector investigation into various fraudulent activities involving Hlaudi Motsoeneng. The Public Protector’s report issued on 17 February 2014 made several damning findings, including that Motsoeneng:

  • Lied about having obtained a matric certificate in the application process;
  • Abused his power by having his salary increased three times in the space of one year, from R1.5 million to R2.4 million;
  • Was responsible for the unlawful appointment of Ms Sully Motsweni to various positions and for her subsequent unlawful salary increases;
  • “Purged” senior staff leading to “the avoidable loss of millions of Rand towards salaries…and settlements for irregular terminations of contracts”; and
  • Unilaterally increased some staff members’ salaries without following the SABC Personnel Regulations, leading to the SABC’s “unprecedented salary bill escalation by R29 million.”

The Public Protector directed the Board to take disciplinary action against Motsoeneng, to recover all wasteful expenditure incurred as a result of irregular salary increments and for the Minister to take urgent steps to find a new permanent COO.

None of this happened. Instead, at a SABC Board Meeting on 7 July the Board inexplicably recommended the appointment of Motsoeneng as COO in a permanent capacity. It was reported that prior to the meeting, Minister Faith Muthambi had arrived at the SABC and entered into a private conference with the SABC Chairperson, Ellen Tshabalala, who conveyed the Minister’s wishes to the Board. Minister Muthambi duly announced Motsoeneng’s appointment the next morning.

Motsoeneng had again survived at the SABC against all odds. For the third time, instead of being fired, he was protected and promoted by high-ranking ANC politicians. It is not hard to figure out why.

President Zuma has never been so embattled. Guptagate, Nkandlagate, Marikana, the arms deal and the spy tapes saga have cast a dark shadow over his presidency. Many in his own party hold him responsible for heavy electoral losses in the 2014 election.

This is why Zuma needs a loyalist at the heart of the SABC to help him survive the inevitable internal backlash.

Motsoeneng is often referred to as Zuma’s “conduit” by SABC staff. Indeed, he has been known to boast about his strong ties to President Zuma and it has been suggested that he ensured favourable SABC coverage for Zuma to head off Kgalema Motlanthe’s challenge for the ANC presidency at Mangaung. When Zuma was booed at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Motsoeneng saw to it that the spectacle – widely reported on at home and abroad – never made it on to prime time SABC news bulletins. The parallels with the SABC’s non-coverage of the Mlambo-Ngcuka booing incident some ten years earlier are striking.

Motsoeneng is the perfect lieutenant to ensure positive reportage of the President – ruthless, calculating and willing to abuse power to achieve his ends. But it would be a mistake to think that President Zuma’s plan to control the airwaves ends with Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Government sources suggested in May this year that President Zuma was waiting until after the election to establish an Orwellian-sounding ‘Information Ministry’. On 16 July, the President proclaimed that the old Department of Communications would become the new Department of Telecommunications and Post. The SABC would move to a newly constituted Department of Communications that would include the Government and Communication Information System (GCIS) previously housed in the Presidency. Ominously, ICASA – the regulator of the SABC – is also under the aegis of the new Department, along with the Film & Publications Board with its far-reaching powers to proscribe the publication and distribution of sensitive material.

This proclamation gives the new Minister of Communications – Zuma loyalist Faith Muthambi – unprecedented influence over crafting and disseminating the government’s message. Shortly after assuming office, Muthambi announced that she would be reducing the number of SABC Board Members from 12 to 5, and transferring Parliament’s powers to hire and fire the Board to herself. Her role in the appointment of Motsoeneng confirmed her complicity in the ongoing politicisation of the SABC.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng is the personification of a renewed and far-reaching assault on the SABC’s independence. But his protection and promotion is just one component of a plan to ensure that the entire state communication apparatus sends out a positive message about Zuma’s track record – a “good story to tell” in ANC parlance. The Zumafication of the SABC should be of concern to every South African with an interest in protecting our constitutional democracy. Indeed, it is going to take the collective effort of the media, civil society and political parties to stop it.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. This is an edited version of a forthcoming article in Focus, the journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation.