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SAJBD and SABC

08 Jul 2013

OPINION by Iqbal Jassat – As news is being dominated by South Africa and vast numbers of people around the globe genuinely concerned about former President Nelson Mandela’s health and the embarrassing storm brewing in his name by members of his family, an intriguing media battle centered on “balance” is playing out with the public broadcaster placed in the middle of the storm. While news has overwhelmingly been dominated by the Mandela saga, some media activists have quietly but actively been pursuing steps to unravel a mysterious “agreement” they believe has constrained the SABC in its news and talk-shows on the subject of Israel/Palestine.

Leading this campaign is well known human rights activist Hassen Lorgat who contends that an agreement claimed by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies to exist between it and the SABC, gives them a defacto right to veto programs, news etc. He claims that such an agreement undermines the editorial independence of the country’s largest media house having its footprint via radio and TV throughout every nook and corner of South Africa.

The agreement relates to a controversial admission made by the Jewish Board’s Wendy Kahn during 2007, when she released a statement published on a Zionist blog known as “Supernatural” under the heading “SAJBD Cuts a Deal with the SABC”. Lorgat’s concerns raised in a formal complaint to the Broadcast Complaints Commission of SA [BCCSA] dealt with a number of issues he believed to be in violation of the public broadcaster’s mandate.

In his own words he describes that his interest derived from being a media activist, as well as one who believes that public services must work for the people. “I have been a unionist, working with Public Services International and various media related tasks in the teachers union SADTU and the national NGO coalition SANGOCO.”

Though this matter was heard by the BCCSA, its judgement overturning Lorgat’s complaint is strangely silent on the question of the “agreement”. Astoundingly it failed to make any pronouncement at all as to whether there exists a special deal allowing the Jewish Board to veto or inject its own participant as a form of “balance”. Not only that but also a failure to initiate a probe to determine whether such a deal violates SABC’s license agreement with ICASA.

Lorgat’s frustrating battle to gain access to details of the agreement is shared by a number of media organizations that include the Freedom of Expression [FXI] and the Media Review Network [MRN]. Recently, when it was discovered that Palestinian academic Prof Mazin Qumsiyeh’s interview on SAFM was cancelled due to the withdrawal of guests nominated by the Jewish Board, Martin Jansen of Workers’ World Media Productions called on people to object to this censorship.

In email correspondence to colleagues he said “Typically and on the last minute I’ve just been informed that SAFM has organized for Mazin’s interview scheduled for 9am tomorrow [March 12, 2013] is likely o be turned into a debate with the JBD. This is effectively the only political issue where the SABC insist on ‘balance’ and consequently a voice from the Zionists.

As it turned out, the Jewish Board fielded a candidate but at the eleventh hour pulled out thus sabotaging the Qumsiyeh interview, knowing that SAFM will not proceed in their absence.Writing on behalf of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Terry Crawford-Browne also raised this issue with Dennis O’Donnell, the SAFM Station Manager based in Johannesburg.

He pointed out that Prof Qumsiyeh was his house guest while in Cape Town during March 2013 and had accompanied him to the SABC studios for the interview when he discovered that it had been cancelled. His question in short is: Does the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and/or the South African Zionist Federation have veto or censorship rights over the SABC’s content regarding Palestine?

Lorgat is determined to proceed with his efforts to get to the bottom of this “balancing act” and has filed an appeal against the judgement. The MRN is fully committed to support Lorgat in his endeavours and is aware that until and unless the SABC is able to provide an unequivocal assurance that no deal exists with any pro-Israel lobby in South Africa, speculation and controversy will abound.

Iqbal Jassat is an executive member of the advocacy group, the Media Review Network. VOC

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