South African Broadcaster's Use of Blacklist Stirs Unease

Karima Brown was banned as a commentator by the SABC's Snuki Zikalala, a member of the ruling African National Congress.
Karima Brown was banned as a commentator by the SABC's Snuki Zikalala, a member of the ruling African National Congress. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

JOHANNESBURG -- Rumors had long existed of a blacklist of commentators banned from the airwaves of South Africa's public broadcasting agency. But it took a blunt conversation with a longtime friend to convince Karima Brown, the outspoken political editor of Business Day, that she was on it.

"We've been told not to use you," Brown recalled being told one day in March by John Perlman, host of the influential "AM Live" radio show, who canceled an appearance organized by the show's producers.

A 79-page report commissioned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation on the blacklist indicates that the order emanated from Snuki Zikalala, the top news executive for the agency, a publicly funded behemoth that many here fear is reverting to its apartheid-era roots as a tool for government propaganda.

And though spirited public debate remains common in post-apartheid South Africa, the existence of an SABC blacklist has stirred unease in a nation where the ruling African National Congress already controls the presidency, the parliament and all nine provincial governments. Last year the party sought judicial reform that was widely criticized as a power grab, and this year it has sought to take control over the one major city, Cape Town, it doesn't already dominate.

Brown, 39, is one of nine commentators that Zikalala, a former government spokesman who received his journalistic training in Communist Eastern Europe, has banished from SABC airwaves since taking over the news operation in April 2004, according to the report.

Those blacklisted include men and women from a range of ethnic groups and professions -- authors, academics, a newspaper publisher and a Catholic archbishop. And though Zikalala, in testimony recounted in the commission report, offered varying reasons for banning each of them, their one common characteristic was a penchant for incisive commentary that often was critical of the government.

"He sees himself as a propagandist," said Brown, a tenacious journalist with stylish, black-rimmed glasses, short brown hair and a rapid-fire speaking style. "This crude, slavish adherence to government policy is incredibly disturbing."

Zikalala did not respond to requests for interviews.

SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago said there has been no decision about whether to discipline Zikalala in light of the report's findings. Kganyago also disputed allegations that the blacklist was a way to curb free expression. "It had nothing to do with a political motive," he said.

The report, drafted by former SABC head Zwelakhe Sisulu and prominent attorney Gilbert Marcus, reached a more nuanced conclusion. "The decisions in question, while undoubtedly politically motivated in some instances, defied classification into a coherent political trend," it said.

The authors also urged the report's public release, a recommendation rejected by SABC officials. It became public only after the Mail & Guardian newspaper obtained a copy and posted it on its Web site. An SABC lawsuit to force its removal was rejected by a judge on Oct. 15.

"What astounded me is that a public institution used public money to prevent the public from seeing a public report," said Brown, her voice rising in frustration. "It's outrageous."

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