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."
The SABC is the country's dominant media force, with 18 radio stations, four television stations and a reach that penetrates the densest urban slums and most remote rural villages. Its 36-story concrete headquarters was built during the apartheid era and has its own electrical sources, water tanks and underground studios so that it could continue broadcasting in the face of riots or attack.
After the African National Congress came to power in 1994, the SABC began to change. The hiring of blacks and other nonwhite journalists accelerated. Meanwhile, a succession of top news executives, including Sisulu, sought to reinvent the SABC as the African equivalent of the BBC -- balanced, independent and determined to challenge the rhetoric of whoever was in power.
That mission has faltered in recent years, especially since Zikalala's arrival, analysts and SABC employees say. Many newscasts are dominated by the pronouncements of government officials. Critical reporting into societal problems remains rare. And controversy often is played down, making the SABC on some days resemble less the BBC than the state-controlled newscasts common throughout much of Africa
When Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was booed at a political rally in August 2005, SABC news failed to show the footage. And in May, SABC officials canceled a planned documentary on the rise to power of President Thabo Mbeki that reportedly included unflattering material.
The Sowetan newspaper broke the story of the blacklist on June 20. And though the SABC issued a statement denying most elements of the story, the following day, Perlman -- who months earlier had told Brown about the blacklist -- revealed to his listeners on "AM Live" that it existed, fueling a growing public outcry.
The commission, which the SABC convened a few days later, found that some of the bannings were specific to certain issues: Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean journalist who owns South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper, was prohibited from discussing his troubled home country. The same restriction against discussing Zimbabwe applied to journalist Elinor Sisulu (the sister-in-law of Zwelakhe Sisulu), Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube and Moeletsi Mbeki, a sharp-tongued political commentator who also happened to be the president's younger brother.
Paula Slier, a free-lance television journalist who had covered the Middle East for the SABC, was banned for allegedly sympathizing with Israelis against the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a longtime ally of the ANC.
"From the movement where I come from, we support the PLO," Zikalala told the commission, according to the report.
Journalist William Gumede, author of a controversial political biography of President Mbeki, was banned even though Zikalala acknowledged to the commission that he had never read Gumede's book.
Zikalala's complaint against Brown, the report said, was that she supposedly spread untruths, citing an article in August 2005 reporting that President Mbeki was at a political meeting he later denied attending. The commission report expressed doubt about whether this was Zikalala's true motive, saying his explanations of the decision to blacklist Brown were inconsistent and failed to "withstand critical scrutiny."
Those on the blacklist said they usually discovered that they had been banned after being booked by an SABC producer onto a show. Then a phone call would bring the news that the interview had been canceled.
Moeletsi Mbeki, who knows Zikalala from the days when both were ANC activists in exile, said his experience studying journalism in Bulgaria left a deep impression on Zikalala at a time when Eastern Bloc countries offered key support to anti-apartheid groups. The ANC largely has jettisoned socialist policies since taking power, but the legacy lives on. The South African Communist Party is a member of the ANC's ruling coalition, and ANC members still refer to each other as "comrades."
"The big influence there was the Communist Party," Moeletsi Mbeki said of Zikalala. "The ruling party must control the way people think. That's the school of thought that he came from."
But Mbeki said that in today's South Africa, where there are multiple sources of broadcast news, not to mention a robust, freewheeling newspaper industry, there is little to fear from Zikalala. "The apartheid regime thought it could use the SABC to control the thoughts of people in South Africa. It didn't work," Mbeki said.
Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst, said the blacklist reflects a dwindling tolerance for public debate in South Africa, and especially at the SABC.
"You can fire Snuki tomorrow," Matshiqi said, referring to Zikalala, "and it will not solve the problem. He's a manifestation of a deeper problem within the SABC."
Brown, a former ANC activist whose first journalism job was at the SABC, sees the problem extending even deeper, into a ruling party that after 12 years of power remains wary of public debate. The current struggle over choosing a successor for President Mbeki, whose second and final five-year term is due to end in 2009, has made the party even more tense and inward-looking than usual, she said.
"The ANC may have abandoned its socialism, but has it abandoned its Stalinism?" Brown said. "I don't think so."