A simmering row at public broadcaster SABC could soon boil over into renewed protests. Just weeks before crucial polls, journalists, civil society, and trade unions accuse SABC of political meddling and censorship.
Disquiet at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) deepened on Monday (27.06.2016) when Acting Group CEO Jimi Matthews resigned over what he termed in a statement a "corrosive atmosphere" that had made him "complicit in many decisions which I am not proud of."
His departure came after thee SABC journalists were suspended for questioning the broadcaster's ban on showing footage of violent protests, such as the firebombing of public buildings.
SABC imposed the ban on May 26, 2016 saying it wanted to discourage copycat protests. The decision was announced by SABC Chief Operations Officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
Outbursts of collective violence over the lack of public services, such as water or roads, have become frequent in South Africa, where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is expected to face a stiff test at municipal elections on August 3.
Critics of SABC's reporting ban have accused it of trampling on people's access to information in order to cover up the failings of the ANC.
"Jimi Matthews' resignation indicates that there is a particularly grave crisis at the SABC," William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa watchdog, told DW. "Some people are seeking to impose censorship of a very brutal and archaic variety," he added.
Covering up for the ANC?
The ANC lashed out at Matthews for stepping aside. "We would have expected better conduct from a very seasoned journalist like Jimi," ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the oppostion Democratic Alliance party, linked the condemnation of recent decisions by SABC management to the fight against apartheid. "You know that in 1994, the fight was for freedom and we have a free press." He described what was happening at SABC as "state capture" which "reverses our freedom" and "can't be accepted."
The website Eyewitness News reported on Wednesday that a protest against "censorship and political meddling at SABC was planned for Friday."
Local media are also saying that Hlaudi Motsoeneng delivered an ultimatum to SABC staff contemplating dissent. "If you are at the SABC, there is leadership and if the leadership says you must turn right, you must turn right. If you turn left, you must get off the bus," Motsoeneng is reported to have said.
Some South Africans are saying Motsoeneng should be the first to leave the broadcaster. Andrina Mulaudzi told DW that Motsoeneng wasn't qualified for the job and that the affair was "actually taking South Africa down. It's bringing the name down and is embarrassing us."
Other South Africans, including the ruling ANC which polled 62 percent of the vote at the 2014 elections, support the reporting restrictions. ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa responded to Matthews' allegation of "corrosive atmosphere" by accusing him of "corrosive behavior."
Funded by taxpayers, SABC has the widest reach among South Africa's broadcasters.
Thuso Khumalo in Johannesburg contributed to this report.