Parliament told of 'broken, depleted and demoralised' SABC newsroom

20 October 2020 - 16:34
By aphiwe deklerk AND Aphiwe Deklerk
The SABC  editorial forum says there are hardly any news slots that occupy prime-time spaces.
Image: Tyrone Arthur The SABC editorial forum says there are hardly any news slots that occupy prime-time spaces.

The SABC editorial forum has criticised its bosses at the public broadcaster, saying they are a “broken, depleted and demoralised newsroom”.

This is amid decisions which include restructuring, potential retrenchments and a looming fight against commercial interests.

Addressing parliament's communications portfolio committee, radio bulletins editor Zolisa Sigabi painted a grim picture of goings-on at the SABC.

The meeting was adjourned before the SABC management could reply to all the questions and allegations against it.

Sigabi told of how they have to fight against commercialisation in the public broadcaster in a bid to protect the SABCs public-service mandate. The SABC is facing financial woes which have led it to make several changes as a condition to receiving a government bailout.

“[We come here] as a broken, depleted and a demoralised newsroom, where fear and anxiety roam the corridors of our buildings. We cannot speak out and tell of the challenges we are facing as staff of the SABC as a gag order was imposed on the staff as soon as the section 189 [retrenchment] process took off,” said Sigabi.

She was speaking as SABC removed news anchor Palesa Chubisi while she was doing a live broadcast, as part of implementing a public protector report on irregular appointments at the public broadcaster.

Twelve other employees of the station are affected by the report.

Sigabi cited this example as one of those that have heightened fear at the SABC, as many face retrenchment.

She called the current skills audit process at the broadcaster ineffective and flawed, questioning the way the service provider was going about conducting the audit.

“The editorial staff of the SABC once again finds itself having to fight for the protection of the public service mandate, this time against commercialisation, which is likely to erode the gains after many years of corrosive editorial interference in the newsroom,” said Sigabi.

She told of how current affairs slots were being trimmed because they were not making money.

The SABC is not attaching any importance to current affairs.
Zolisa Sigabi

“The main concern is this: news has been relegated to graveyard slots, as mandates that are insignificant. There are hardly any news slots that occupy prime time spaces.

“The news slots at SAfm, for instance, were replaced as follows: the morning show, the current affairs show, is at 5am and finishes at 6am — just one hour. The mini-show is an hour, 12-1pm. The weekend shows, on Saturday and Sunday, 6am-7am.

“The shifting of the morning shows denies the listeners the right to know as many are not available to listen at the time. This clearly demonstrates that the SABC is not attaching any importance to current affairs,” said Sigabi.

She argued against the reduction of current affairs shows, saying they offered packages which reflected voices and views of ordinary people on matters that affect them.

Sigabi criticised plans by the SABC to shut down a number of its offices, including one in George, which largely serves the Garden Route, the closure of the Bhisho office in the Eastern Cape, to be covered by journalists based in Mthatha.

“There was a specific reason the offices were structured in the manner that they have been. For instance, the Bhisho office was specifically opened to cover the provincial legislature and the rural areas that fell under the former Ciskei area. By the way, the provincial seat of the Eastern Cape is in Bhisho, where our offices are right now,” she said.

Speaking in the same meeting, SABC head of legal affairs Ntuthuzelo Vanara defended the public broadcaster over its acting on the public protector's report, saying only one employee was sacked — and this for not meeting the relevant competencies required.

He further defended the skills audit and the section 189 processes now under way at the broadcaster.