by Iswamo Kapalu

The last few weeks have seen the battle for the soul of the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) intensify. High profile resignations and clear indications of discontent from high ranking officials in the organisation point to a crisis. What were previously hushed whispers in the halls of Auckland Park are now full-blown shouts of “censorship” on its streets. While this “battle” for all accounts has being going on for a while, its intensification – to my mind – represents a step in the war for information whose first salvo wasn’t in Auckland Park at all.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to remember a time before eNCA. But such a time did exist and I remember it. Growing up, my grandparents’ house didn’t have satellite TV or the right kind of terrestrial antenna for us to watch eTV. Every morning my grandfather would wake up at 5am to watch the free hour of BBC news that would show on SABC 3. Then he would watch Morning Live on SABC 2 and when that was over he would dash out of the house to enjoy his retirement and come back in the afternoon. As a family, and before “Generations” we would watch the evening news, on SABC, then we would all go to bed. I didn’t understand at the time why someone, who could wake up whenever they wanted on most days, would chose to wake up at 5am in the morning. In retrospect, the hour of BBC news in the morning was a break from the televised monopoly on information that the SABC once had. To me, my grandparents left behind a pre-eNCA, pre-Twitter and pre-smartphone world. For some, however, the world is still that place and that is why it is important that the SABC remains neutral, fair, balanced and transparent.

What eNCA did was fill a gap that the BBC hour didn’t. It gave an alternative televised view of local events 24 hours a day to anyone who could afford to pay for TV. It was flashy, well-produced and well-funded. eNCA was like private school, or private security, or private healthcare, or private transport. It was an alternative by and for those who could afford it – and its editorial line reflected this.

It willingly fed the government scepticism of its target audience and accepted the credibility that that audience felt was inherent in distance from the government. Its perspective became the standard for many with anything that veered on the side of positive automatically becoming “sugar-coated.” But eNCA like all non-state media houses has a responsibility to its bottom line. What they cover and how they cover it is driven, of course, by standards and ethics but also by what attracts viewers – their viewers – and therefore advertisers and therefore revenue. Stories about the multi-billion rand concrete cartel that built our stadiums will take a backseat to the R10 million bribe that brought the tournament here in the first place. That’s what their audience wants to hear about. That’s just the nature of the beast.

This created pressure and the government, especially in the years before the last election, felt this pressure. Media tribunals were proposed to make non-state media accountable to someone other than themselves but that fell flat – partially because of campaigning by these self-regulating media houses. When regulation failed competition was the next step and eNCA-esque alternatives like the 24 hour SABC news channel and the Gupta-owned ANN7. So intense was the fear of losing the war for information that the state, after the election, introduced the rather sounding Orwellian “Department of Communications.”

The “crisis” in the SABC is a result of a messy and tangled state and party using public resources to fight an information war. This hurts people like my grandparents who have little other access to information outside the public broadcaster. It hurts their right to information and their right to make informed political decisions. Because of their place in society and because they are a public broadcaster, the SABC cannot be part of the information war between the state and private media. They owe the public neutrality and transparency and any attempt to interfere with this mandate on the part of the state is in a breach of the public’s rights to information and informed political and societal engagement.

On the other hand, the relationship between the media and big business and the rapidly blurring line between information and entertainment, poses as large a threat to our democracy. Until we, globally, can find a way to insulate our information from financially-incentivised sensationalism, the public must have an objective alternative. The party-state must fund our public broadcaster without controlling it. And although it is difficult to compete with the considerable financial muscle of media empires without deploying state resources, it must be done and the SABC must be left out of it.