A clarion call to stand up against censorship as a means of protecting the South African democracy was made on Friday when journalists, communication officers, civil society, politicians, and members of the public braced the Cape Town cold and rain, standing in solidarity with suspended journalists and against muzzling of the media by the country’s public broadcaster, the SABC.
Fondly known to his colleagues in the field as the “choirmaster” because of his knack for leading, South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Lukhanyo Calata explained why the show of solidarity and protest was crucial for the county.
“If we don’t show one aspect of a protest, then we are also not going to show an aspect of another story,” he said, referring to the SABC’s recent and controversial move to ban all coverage of protests in the country.
“It starts off small and then it escalates into something so much bigger than any of us would have ever imagined.”
Calata, the son of slain anti-apartheid activist Fort Calata of the Cradock Four, spoke out on Monday against his employer’s draconian decision. This, in the face of growing suspensions at the public broadcaster.
“I think it’s time and I am happy that other people within the SABC have also taken a stance and to show that look, the SABC is a public broadcaster, there should be nothing that happens at the SABC that is kept secret – particularly from the public,” he said.
“It was in that light that I took the decision that I took. I will face the consequences because I am sure there will be consequences, but you know, every action has a reaction.”
Calata was joined by many of his colleagues, from the cub reporters to the doyens. Two long-serving journalists present were Terry Bell and Pippa Green.
Bell, an anti-apartheid activist and now-political commentator for Fin24 and the City Press, said the related situation in the country was more concerning than was the case when he returned to South Africa from exile in 1991.
“I am more worried now than I have ever been because we don’t yet have a viable alternative – a genuine, democratic alternative – which extends democracy and doesn’t try to restrict it,” said Bell.
He said that South Africa had become a “no-consequence country” where people like controversial SABC chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng – who was likened at the protests and online to Nazi Germany’s Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels – could “do as they please” and “simply ignore the courts, ignore the rule of law”.
“It is a very, very worrying aspect,” said Bell.
He added that the general public should be deeply concerned about the increasing censorship and “toxic atmosphere within the SABC” as it was contradictory to its mandate of serving the public.
Green, a media manager at the University of Cape Town and struggle journalist, echoed Bell’s sentiments.
“Any kind of censorship is against the whole ethos of the public broadcaster,” she said.
“The public broadcaster is a really important vehicle for news, for the whole of the country and its in the Broadcasting Act that the highest journalistic standards are maintained and that means that journalists must be free to cover the news as truthfully and as widely as possible.”
Joining journalists and media practitioners was the fraternity’s ally, civil society activists Right2Know (R2K).
Organiser Alex Hotz – also a member of the #RhodesMustFall movement – said R2K would continue to stand in solidarity with journalists – both at the SABC and the African News Network 7 (ANN7) where vocal employees have also been suspended – and was committed to fighting censorship. This, he said, because censorship could – and had already – dealt a dire blow to democracy.
“Another Marikana massacre can happen and none of us would know about it because there wouldn’t be coverage,” said Hotz.
She said that the protest was not just about journalists but also the broader public and access to information.
“Generally, we are seeing that there is an increase in an authoritarian state, demanding that we know less and less and there is more surveillance around activists,” said Hotz.
This, she said, was illustrated by the SABC’s blackout of protests in Tshwane and political unrest on Borcherds Quarry in Cape Town.
Political parties the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) were also present at the protest.
“I am out in solidarity with the reporters of the SABC to push the agenda that they are busy pushing,” said EFF’s Western Cape representative Bernard Joseph.
“I think that it is in the interest of the respective communities that we support this cause. We need to have objective reporting,” he said.
The SACP – who have been consistent in their condemnation of the SABC’s censorship and suspensions – said they would continue to fight on behalf of workers, including journalists.
“An injury to one is an injury to all,” said Masonwabe Sokoyi, SACP’s Western Cape spokesperson.
“We are here in solidarity with the workers of the SABC that have been suspended and we are here in protest and in support of anyone who is against the changing of policies by the SABC which we believe are draconian and resemble the apartheid-style of censorship.”
Sokoyi reiterated the SACP’s stance saying news must not be censored but added that the party would continue to condemn violent protest as it was not conducive to truly resolving problems.
His party would continue protesting the SABC’s actions, with plans to reconvene outside the public broadcaster’s headquarters in the next few days.
While the Cape Town protest outside of the SABC headquarters in Sea Point continued – and one in Johannesburg outside the Auckland Park offices – the public broadcaster was reportedly busying itself with disciplinary hearings against its suspended journalists Thandeka Gqubule‚ Foeta Krige, and Suna Venter. However, the hearings were postponed to allow the journalists’ legal teams time to prepare.