Cablegate: South African Broadcasting Corporation Circles Its Wagons
PP RUEHDU RUEHJO
DE RUEHSA #4513/01 3040843
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 310843Z OCT 06
FM AMEMBASSY PRETORIA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6629
INFO RUEHJO/AMCONSUL JOHANNESBURG 5635
RUEHTN/AMCONSUL CAPE TOWN 3559
RUEHDU/AMCONSUL DURBAN 8310
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PRETORIA 004513
DEPT FOR AF/PDPA, AF/S, DRL/MLA, ECA/AEAF
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM PINR SCUL KDEM KPAO SF
SUBJECT: SOUTH AFRICAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION CIRCLES ITS WAGONS
AFTER REPORT BLASTS ITS NEWS CHIEF
REF: A) PRETORIA 2755; B) PRETORIA 4417
1. (SBU) Summary: The embattled South African Broadcast
Corporation (SABC) took another hit to its credibility with the
unauthorized release of a report confirming the Managing Director of
its News and Current Affairs Division banned certain commentators,
in some cases for politically motivated reasons (Ref B). By
releasing a watered-down summary of the report, frantically seeking
to suppress publication of the full report, and expressing "full
confidence" in the much-maligned news chief, the SABC Board has
stoked concerns that the public broadcaster is failing its mandate
to be independent and not a government mouthpiece. The SABC chief
executive officer's subsequent attempt to portray the criticism as
the whining of whites unhappy with black governance has added a
racial undertone to the controversy. End Summary.
SABC's Annus Horribilis
2. (U) Public Broadcaster SABC is the dominant media organization
in South Africa. With three of the country's four free-to-air
television stations and a far-reaching radio network that broadcasts
in all 11 national languages, SABC is uniquely positioned to
influence politics and national discourse.
3. (U) Earlier this year, SABC came under fire for behavior that
recalled the days when the public broadcaster was little more than a
mouthpiece for the white apartheid government (Ref A). Raising
alarms were a last-minute decision to reject a documentary that
voiced criticism of President Mbeki and reports that certain
commentators critical of the government had been banned from the
public airwaves. Reeling from the resulting criticism, the Board
asked a former SABC group chief executive and a widely respected
lawyer to investigate the allegations of a commentator "blacklist."
The probe was expected to focus on Snuki Zikalala, the Managing
Director of SABC's News and Current Affairs Division, who is a
former government spokesman and viewed by many as an apparatchik of
the ruling African National Congress.
4. (SBU) After several months of investigation, the appointed
commission submitted its report to the SABC Board in late September.
On October 12, the Board released a nine-page summary of the
commission's 78-page report. Much of the report's detailed
criticism of Zikalala's management style and of his decisions
regarding the use of commentators (Ref B) was not included. The
summary did include the commission's relatively few positive
findings about Zikalala -- such as an acknowledgment he wanted to
improve the quality of reporting and the failure to uncover a
consistent political motivation for his actions -- and ended with an
expression of "full confidence" in him and his staff. In explaining
why it refused to release the entire report, the Board among other
things noted that witness allegations had not been tested in court.
[COMMENT: an odd consideration for a media organization that
routinely airs material that fails that standard.]
5. (U) The following day, the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper
published a series of articles quoting from the full version of the
report and posted a leaked copy of it on its Website (www.mg.co.za).
In several cases, the commission harshly criticized Zikalala's
exclusion of commentators from SABC, saying they were not
"objectively defensible." Their report also argued that there was
sufficient evidence to suggest that the SABC newsroom under Zikalala
was poisoned by fear and self censorship.
6. (SBU) In response, the SABC Board circled its wagons. It
publicly expressed its full confidence in Zikalala in its report
summary. It went to court in an unsuccessful effort to suppress the
publication of the commission's full report on the Mail & Guardian
website, even though the report itself clearly recommends the full
text should be made public. A high-profile Board member, Thami
Mazwai, wrote a scathing opinion piece in the influential Business
Day newspaper that accused Zikalala's critics of a witch hunt.
Public Reaction: Outrage from the Usual Quarters
7. (SBU) Not surprisingly, those moves outraged freedom of
expression advocates, editorialists, and opposition politicians.
Political cartoonists had a field day, with one giving Zikalala the
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none-too-flattering titles of "Comrade Commissar, Censor-in-Chief
(and) His Staliness." In Contrast, most government and ANC leaders
have been conspicuously quiet so far. While public opinion is
difficult to gauge without polling data, there have been no overt
signs that the controversy is resonating deeply among South
8. (SBU) Still, SABC Chief Executive Officer Dali Mpofu attacked his
critics in a full-page vitriolic commentary that appeared in the
October 22 City Press newspaper. Instead of acknowledging the
freedom of expression concerns raised, he dismissed his critics as
right-wingers and their fellow travelers - commonly-used terms
referring to the white minority and their black supporters - and
said the Mail & Guardian coverage reflected "the pervasive
anti-establishment hatred of anything connected to the
democratically elected black-dominated government." Mpofu said not
only was he reviewing allegations of wrongdoing by Zikalala, who is
black, but is also investigating John Perlman, a white SABC radio
presenter who contradicted on air an SABC spokesman who insisted
there was no blanket ban on commentators. [NOTE: The commission
report had exonerated Perlman, saying "we cannot fault him" for
confronting an untruth.]
9. (U) The saga has left at least one intellectual arguing for a
political revolution to usher out failed national leadership.
Xolela Mangcu, visiting scholar at the Public Intellectual Life
Project at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, argued
in an October 19 Business Day column that both Zikalala and Mpofu
were appointed to be political mouthpieces and not captains of an
independent media, as required by the SABC charter. Mpofu's apparent
inaction against Zikalala, he said, is "simply a symptomatic
manifestation of a broader political, cultural and institutional
malaise in this country. It is a malaise born of a cynical
political culture in which political leaders brook no dissent, feed
on public resources and then tell the sick and the poor to eat cake.
Such political cultures never change until and unless there is a
political revolution that ushers in a new leadership cadre."
10. (SBU) While the commissioners made clear that much of the
testimony they heard focused on Zikalala and a narrow range of radio
and television programs, their report left little doubt the SABC is
not properly performing its role as an independent broadcaster
airing a wide spectrum of opinion. The SABC Board's initial
response to the commission's findings is not encouraging for those
who believe meaningful reform of the newsroom is urgently needed.
Mpofu's subsequent public diatribe suggests an appalling
misunderstanding of legitimate freedom of expression concerns.
Those responses are troubling for post-apartheid South Africa, in
which an independent SABC was envisioned to be a pillar of
democratic development in a color-blind nation.