How South African civil society scored a victory for freedom of expression


South African civil society recently succeeded in making the state broadcaster reverse a policy decision it had made concerning the censorship of violent protest images in news reporting. Media Freedom and Diversity Organiser Micah Reddy of the Right to Know (R2K) Campaign tells CIVICUS how they succeeded.

1. Can you briefly explain the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) decision concerning broadcasting of protests?

The policy was ostensibly about respectability in terms of how journalists at the public broadcaster SABC cover violence during protests. But people were quick to see through the SABC’s reasoning. The unwritten rule was that there would be no airing of violence that happens at protests whatsoever, and such a blanket coverage ban is effectively censorship. 

The SABC argued that the decision was arrived at because we live in a very violent society where violence is covered too recklessly and there is too much gratuitous violence on our television screens. The SABC argued that when people see violent protests on TV they tend to emulate what they see, and that those who are protesting grandstand in front of the cameras and destroy public property when they know they are being filmed, and this encourages others to destroy property and use the cameras to promote their own agendas. It’s as absurd as saying journalists should not report on crime because it breeds more crime ─ which is something the SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng actually said. This is a very patronising view not only of people who protest but audiences as well. It is not for one man in a management position to tell us what we can and cannot watch and to attempt to control and distort the media narrative on the assumption that he should protect us from violent images, like an overbearing nanny.

To say that there will be no coverage of any violence whatsoever, when the reality is that we live in a structurally violent society (and where, I should add, violence is often directed against protesters) ─ that is covering up for the powerful. That is censorship. Violence needs to be contextualised. Journalists have an obligation to inform the public, to explain why people resort to violence. Not to pretend there is no violence. But Motsoeneng assumes to know better than the public, journalists, regulatory bodies, media exerts and the courts.

There is also a clear political agenda to this. We know it is not about protecting viewers from seeing violence but about management at the SABC attempting to protect their political masters by presenting a whitewashed and sanitised version of news.

2. What are the reasons why this decision was unacceptable for you as a civil society organisation?

We accept that we do live in a very violent society and it is wrong to use violence to sell news. Media organisations have the responsibility to cover violence in a sensitive way, to contextualise violence and not just use violence for shock value to boost viewership or sales. This is why we have codes of ethics and journalistic values with regulatory bodies like Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa and the Press Council to ensure compliance. The media generally adheres to these codes and when it doesn’t, it is sanctioned. 

Violence in news reporting is generally different from the kind of violence we are already exposed to in movies aired on the SABC. In news, covering violence is indeed fraught with complex moral problems, but there are public interest reasons to show violence. Protests, for example, are inherently political phenomena and are therefore matters of public interest. Not only is their disruptiveness of public interest but also their root causes, whether they are about service delivery, corruption or whatever. Of course coverage of violence must be weighed up against the need to preserve the dignity of victims of violence and their families. But decisions are not made lightly by editors, such as when violence occurred in xenophobic attacks. There was a strong case to be made by the Sunday Times newspaper that used pictures showing Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambican national, being stabbed on the streets of South Africa. Those images were shocking, but they alerted the public, especially those who live in wealthy enclaves and are able to remain aloof from the violence of poorer parts, to just how severe things were. Those images also assisted in bringing to justice Sithole’s killers. In that case I think the pictures were horrifying, shocking and uncomfortable to see, but there was strong case for publishing them both for the public, to underscore the seriousness and severity of xenophobic violence, and for Sithole’s family.

Now the problem with the SABC is that its ban is a blanket ban on violence at protests. That is outright censorship that cannot be justified. It means cameras must just turn away from violence ─ be blind to reality. Imagine if the cameras were turned away at Marikana where police shot miners who were on strike. Unfortunately, people are desperate and angry, and our past of violent dispossession is still imprinted on the present. Often protests are about service delivery failures, which often goes down to corruption, mismanagement of public funds and the lack of accountability by local government, and this frustration manifests during these protests. These are issues of public interest and by refusing to document these protests the SABC management is guilty of doctoring the news and giving only part of the picture. The press is supposed to play a watchdog role and to hold power to account. It cannot do that if it is muzzled, which is clearly what Motsoeneng and his cabal want. 

3. What steps did you take as a civil society organisation and as a collective of NGOs to stand against this decision?

After the SABC decision was made public, our structures resolved to oppose it whole-heartedly on the basis that this was a violation of the Constitution, especially freedom of expression. So we worked closely with other organisations including the Save our SABC (SOS) coalition, Media Monitoring and Freedom of Expression Institute and unions, among other civic society organisations. 

We embarked on protest action at the headquarters of the SABC. That led to purges of journalists who spoke out against the policy. However there was also an outpouring of solidarity with the suspended journalists. There was massive outcry from the public in response to the SABC becoming a microphone for factions of the ruling party. People were alarmed that the public broadcaster was being used to suppress the stories of people’s struggles, especially ahead of the elections on August 3. At one of the protests, we insisted on seeing the SABC chief operating officer, who eventually agreed to meet us. He said he did not know much about the policy decision on protests or the dismissals. We found it absurd that he feigned ignorance, but he promised us a follow-up meeting a few days later. But on the day of the meeting, he backtracked and refused to see us. 

The SABC put many obstacles in our way, dragged its feet, and was completely aloof to our petitioning, refusing to give us answers.

On the legal front, Right to Know was involved, though we were primarily focused on spearheading mass mobilisation and public awareness. We were focused on building public support for these legal interventions and complementing them in that way. But other NGOs filed legal challenges with ICASA, calling for the reversal of the SABC’s decision on protest coverage. We also supported journalists who were fired and had taken the broadcaster to the courts to get reinstated. We have recorded victory on both fronts and the SABC has had to concede to reversing its decision and to reinstating the journalists.

4. After these victories, what is the way forward for you as NGOs?

The victories are important but this is only the beginning. The problems at the SABC are so deeply rooted and far-reaching. These victories will not turn around the SABC. Hlaudi Motsoeneng is still in his position. The board is still ineffective, incompetent, spineless and unable to hold the SABC to accountable. These things need to change. 

But it goes beyond what’s happening inside the SABC. There are so many aspects to the decline of the SABC. Parliament needs to stop giving us unconstitutional legislation like the Broadcasting Amendment Bill that would give the minister yet more power over the SABC, and it needs to start exercising its legislative power to strengthen the SABC’s independence. The government needs to be pressured into reining in the maverick minister of communications Faith Muthambi. And the ANC can do more too. We know that the problems stem from political interference, and we don’t want the ANC to interfere in the SABC’s internal matters (that’s why we got stuck with this crisis in the first place), but we do want the ANC to exercise its legitimate influence over its politicians, in parliament and government, to ensure that they conform to the governing party’s own media policies and end the cadre deployment and attempts to undermine and capture the broadcaster. A faction of the ANC is supporting the current SABC management at the expense of the public’s rights and the ANC must hold them to account. The party’s president, whose interests Hlaudi is acting in, must be held to account.

Crucially, the Department of Communications under the minister Faith Muthambi has been complicit and acting in cahoots with the management at SABC to undermine the broadcaster and its integrity and credibility. It has increasingly attempted to bring the SABC under its control. These attempts are deeply worrying. The SABC is not the minister’s private company where the minister can hire and fire the executives. The minister does not legally have full control of the SABC. We need the courts to reaffirm that there should be a barrier between politicians and government on the one hand, and the public broadcaster on the other. It’s a big fight, but as a start we want Hlaudi Motsoeneng to leave the broadcaster, without a golden handshake, and we want mechanisms in place to guarantee the SABC’s independence.

5. What can other NGOs in other countries who find themselves in similar situations learn from your strategy and approach?

It is a common challenge ─ defending the ideals of public broadcasting in the face of political interference ─ especially in authoritarian states where the media is tightly controlled it often acts as a party mouthpiece. This struggle is important because the power the broadcaster has over knowledge production and dissemination is vast.

We’ve succeeded to the extent we have because a large section of society and actors from different sides of the political spectrum joined us to support the action. One aspect of the campaign that made it successful was that our view upheld basic democratic ideals, people united behind fundamental rights, so we found common ground with people who hold quite different ideologies, even including some quite conservative trade unions. 

We also gave space, in as much as possible, for media workers, so it was not just about us claiming to be standing up for them and speaking on their behalf. So every step of the way media workers, who are concerned by the rot at their place of work and who are most affected, had a sense of ownership of this struggle, even when it was hard for them to take a public stance for fear of victimisation. Public awareness was also crucial. We needed to give people a sense of ownership over the SABC ─ it has a mandate to be accountable to us, the public. In other countries like the United Kingdom, where the BBC is widely valued as a public asset, threats to the public broadcaster are met with serious pubic outrage. The public needs to play a major role in safeguarding the SABC’s independence. SABC is the primary source of news for millions of households, and the wellbeing of our democracy is at stake because the free flow of information is so vital for democracy, so we should care. 

There was also an impressive spontaneity in our campaigns. The response of the SABC in suspending the journalists fuelled the support for the campaign. Every step of the way the SABC chose the most confrontational approach, the path of most resistance. When they were presented with opportunities to diffuse things, they never did. They are politically naïve, so they played into our hands.


The Right2Know Campaign launched on August 2010 and is growing into South Africa’s first post-Apartheid movement centred on freedom of expression and access to information. It is a democratic, activist-driven campaign that strengthens and unites citizens to raise public awareness, mobilise communities and undertake research and targeted advocacy that aims to ensure the free flow of information necessary to meet people’s social, economic, political and ecological needs and live free from want, in equality and in dignity. Follow them on twitter at @r2kcampaign



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