TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

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I’m sharing something I wrote three years ago about censorship at the South African Public Broadcaster (SABCNews) which was initially published on IPS  in 2013 as I am thinking and reflecting on the bravery of SABC8 Journalist Suna Venter who  died from Heart Break Syndrome. I didn’t know then that the state of emergency in our country would escalate to a point where one of own journalists would be harassed, stalked, assaulted, isolated, hounded and victimized to the point of death. I don’t think it’s fair that one person, a single individual has to  die  before we all can realize how pervasive the power structures in all state and or public institutions have become. It’s not fair to sacrifice people at the alter of your lust for power,  money, influence or the vote. Yes,  principles might not pay your bills but not having them will certainly kill the conscience of this country. Can you live with that?

In the Public Interest

In this blog for World Press Freedom Day 2013, journalist Jedi Ramalapa shares the pressures journalists often face from State institutions to censor their work, and the emotional toll this can have on both the journalist and the subject.

In the Public Interest    

by Jedi Ramalapa

The South African Broadcasting Corporation or SABC broadcasts news and current affairs daily to more than 48 million South Africans, through 18 radio stations in all the 11 official languages and has three television channels which can be accessed even in the remotest parts of the country.

 

It is more powerful than any of the local South African broadcasters put together in swaying public opinion and, more importantly, with winning votes.  Having control over the public broadcaster is having control of the country.  Businesses and politicians understand this fact all too well.  If it’s not on SABC, it can’t be completely true.

 

I was busy editing an interview with one of the Marikana widows, whose husband was killed along with 50 or so other mine workers on the 16th of August 2012.  It was the kind of interview I had done a thousand times before, speaking to grieving relatives about their loved ones.  It was in my opinion nothing out of the ordinary or controversial.

 

But this time and for the first time in an eight-and-a-half year public broadcasting career at the SABC   they, the executive producers, asked to listen to the final cut of the interview which we planned to air later that day.

 

They listened as the widow spoke of her grief and her anger. “I blame the government, the police, the unions and Lonmin for what happened,” she said on tape.

 

Play that again, said the executive producers. They listened and said, “Cut out that part.”

 

“Which part,” I asked?  Like a naïve little girl.

 

“That part where she says:  ‘I blame the government, the unions, the police and Lonmin for what happened.’”

 

“Why?”  I asked.

 

“Because there’s no one to blame, we don’t know who is responsible, and we just don’t want to have to deal with questions.”

 

What questions, I asked myself in disbelief thinking that even in her grief the widow had managed to be impartial in apportioning blame to everyone involved in the Marikana massacre; not many people were able to do that.

 

But I couldn’t fight it.  I had woken this woman up at 6am to do the interview, which had taken me at least three days and a string of phone-calls to convince her to speak to me.  We cried together during the interview- in which I tried to convince her that life was still worth living. She had trusted me with her heart.  I was not going to let her down.  So I did as I was told and cut out the offending parts like a surgeon saving a life.

 

The widow had been censored in the most subtle of ways, by omission and not only was I not prepared for it, I became an accomplice.

 

Even today I don’t know who to blame for that moment in my life, myself for doing the interview in the first place? Or for failing to defend her or my work when I was told to cut out certain parts? I don’t know.

 

But I am writing this to honour the Marikana widow who in a moment of great loss and pain managed to do what I and the public broadcaster failed to do, speak truth to power and remain impartial.

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NEWS: PRINCIPLES CAN’T PAY THE BILLS

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I’ve heard it being said a million times in the blue corridors of the embattled public (state) broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Journalist after senior journalist and editor after senior editor giving us newcomers, the young ones, sage advice. Lay low, do your job, keep your head down and let the storm pass and it will, we’ve been through this many times. We have worked under Apartheid and under different chiefs; Mandela, Mbeki, Mbeki again, and now Jacob Zuma. We have been here since Barney Mthombothi, Matata Tsedu, Snuki Zikalala etc. They all come and go, like the revolving door.  Each one comes with their own policies and rules, but we’re still here. Unless you’re a trust fund kid, have wealthy parents or loads of money stashed away somewhere for you, a nest egg of a lifetime, unless you’re connected to powerful people in powerful positions who can intervene on your behalf  – you just better keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your job. If you make a noise, you are on your own. Stay.

There are other ways to fight the demon of censorship. Leak the story to the outside media. Call in anonymously on 702. But don’t make yourself a target. The media space in South Africa is pretty small, everyone knows everyone and sooner or later you’ll have to knock right back at the door you slammed a few hours ago. Unless you are a media demigod, insert a name of your choice here.

Are you a member of a union? Are you an ANC member? Do you have connections? So, don’t let other people’s battles become yours. Mind your own business. It doesn’t matter, you have here an opportunity to do wonderful work, to contribute to the archives of our history, to tell stories like no other organization can.  To be a voice for the voiceless.

Your story will be heard in 18 radio stations across the country, in all 11 official languages. And if you work for TV, your work will be screened in all four Television stations broadcasting in four, five or more official languages. 

SABC’s market share for audiences is still very large, even though the higher income earners in the LSM 7-10 bracket have moved on to other free-to air and or private media such as E-tv and Mnet, Multichoice and the internet. The majority of the nation still listens to SABC channels whether it’s Television or Radio. Don’t let them fool you. If you want to do real work that matters, if you want to speak to South Africa today.  This is the place.

While the actions of the SABC8 journalist who are now sadly fired are commendable they will join a long line of former SABC journalists who also stood up and took up a principled decision to walk out the door instead of doing what they were told. Some never returned, some left only to return again and again.

The SABC8 were vindicated with the SANEF Nat Nakasa Award for showing exceptional courage and integrity in their work. Donations are pouring in to assist them to weather the storms of unemployment while they fight for their jobs, in a show of unprecedented compassion for those who were brave enough to speak truth to power. Maybe the SABC8 will win their case in court and get their jobs back, maybe they won’t. Who knows, anything can happen.

But in the meantime, censorship still continues at the SABC. At least 3 thousand employees will wake-up and go to work tomorrow. Someone will fill in the vacant positions from inside, someone will pick up where the SABC8 have left off and act in their positions until the situation is normalized and the storm dies down and the current Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng is replaced by someone else. A woman this time.

Because in this game called life…

 iJob iJob.  Local elections are around the corner, there are other stories that need to be covered, soapies to broadcast, Somizi’s new radio show to put on air, advertisers need to be billed, programs need commissioning, slots must be filled. At the core of it all, it is about power and influence – and these potent but  invisible things are not easy to give up. 

 So then, life will continue as it does even after someone we once loved deeply, like freedom, dies. The grief subsides and the pain slowly fades away. And we find ourselves laughing again, because we must.

Nothing will change at the SABC until the day that principles can pay the bills.  Then only will the entire staff or at least the majority of it, down tools, stage an internal black-out or stay away from work in a form of protest. Just take a cursive glance at the recent events in Zimbabwe.

Until then, others will continue to live off the sweat of a few who dare to face the heat and are now faced with a future of eating principles for lunch.  This is true for most media houses across the world. Nothing new there.

Didn’t you know? That’s how democracy works. The majority rule.

Well that is,  until further notice…