‘I was not looking to muzzle SABC’
Minister apologises after outcry for blocking camera
“I did not see my actions as barring the SABC,” communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said of her attempt to block a cameraman from filming a group of people protesting at the ANC Eastern Cape’s manifesto launch in Mount Frere.
In footage aired by the public broadcaster, Ndabeni-Abrahams’s hand is seen in front of the camera, trying to block the shot.
Hours later she apologised, saying she had feared that the presence of the camera crew would fuel the disgruntled party members.
“There is nothing that was going through my mind.
“I was just focusing on the people who were toyi-toying and therefore I was scared that if they see cameras they would continue, because it happens when there are cameras,” she said.
Ndabeni-Abrahams said she subsequently realised the impact of her actions and apologised to anyone they affected.
“I was not really looking to muzzle the SABC, but my main focus was on what was happening [at] the event.
“This is why I say I really apologise to those who were affected. I didn’t see it as barring the SABC.
“I now realise the impact of what I did. I was focusing on those who were protesting and . . . on the event without looking at how this was going to come out,” she said.
“I really apologise for it.” The incident on Saturday sparked an outcry, with some critics warning that SA could not tolerate the kind of censorship seen during former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s reign at the public broadcaster.
Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird said Ndabeni-Abrahams’s behaviour undermined the constitution.
“It’s fundamentally and completely unacceptable for a minister of a democratic government to directly seek to censor and prevent media from doing their job.
“The fact that she’s apologised needs to be taken into deep consideration. It was a speedily-issued apology and while it does mitigate it to some degree, it is simply not good enough at this point.
“What we need to see the ANC do is demonstrate their commitment to media freedom, make sure they appoint members of the [SABC] board as the first step, and then they will need to sanction the minister as well,” Bird said.
Members of the SABC board quit late in 2018 following clashes with then newly appointed Ndabeni-Abrahams.
“This is someone demonstrating a level of power that they think they have, which they clearly don’t, but we need to send out a clear message that this is unacceptable behaviour which should be condemned by all parties and every democratic South African,” Bird said.
DA MP Phumzile van Damme said the ANC was simply acting as it had for years.
“The minister’s actions are no different from previous ANC ministers who have sought to control the SABC through political interference.
“Her act is not a once-off or a mistake, she was simply doing what the ANC has been doing for years, and was allowed to by captured SABC management and boards.”
She accused the ANC of intentionally delaying the process of appointing a new board for political reasons.
“At centre of the SABC’s problems is political interference. This combined with the deliberate delay in beginning the process of appointing a new board speaks to their intentions to once again control the SABC,” she said.
The SA National Editors Forum called for an urgent meeting with Ndabeni-Abrahams over her blocking SABC journalists from doing their job.
“While we note the minister has apologised for the incident, we are concerned that she refers to her actions as an ‘altercation’,” it said.
“Sanef is concerned that attacks against journalists are escalating and calls on political parties and those elected to lead not to use journalists as pawns in their political infighting and/or to cover up corruption,” the statement reads.
“In the run-up to the elections highly contested hot spots often pose a threat to the safety of journalists.
“Should any person, organisation or political party feel genuinely aggrieved by a story or any actions taken by the media, they should follow the correct channels to address their grievances.”
“There is empirical evidence to show that when senior party leaders and politicians muzzle journalists, their supporters follow in their footsteps.”
The organisation is expected to meet Ndabeni-Abrahams on Wednesday. In her apology on Saturday, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams referred to her interference with the work of journalists as an “altercation”.
She went further to offer what she said was her sincere apology and assurance to the country of her commitment to media freedom. This followed an incident where Ndabeni-Abrahams placed her hand on an SABC camera to prevent journalists from filming a protest at the ANC’s manifesto launch in Mount Frere. Her supporters have accepted her apology and enthusiastically affirmed that she, like all of us, is no perfect being.
For one, this reasoning demonstrates how low we have set the bar of accountability when we allow those in power to get away with merely confirming that they were wrong, without acknowledging the gravity and extent of their actions.
Two, we cannot use the principle of human fallibility to excuse the behaviour of those who intentionally abuse their power to undermine democratic activities. There is simply too much at stake in our country. The last decade in particular remains a powerful lesson of the progressive destruction that settles in over time when the powerful are allowed to pull the levers of state with impunity.
As a civil servant in a constitutional democracy, her actions were completely unacceptable.
As a minister tasked with oversight of the SABC – and by extension the free flow of information in the country – her conduct was deplorable.
While we note her apology, we believe in its current form it is a disingenuous attempt to gloss over an incident which clearly demonstrated how impulsively she undermined a democratic principle to preserve political expediency.
The sting in Ndabeni-Abrahams’s actions is that it is precisely because she is communications minister that she believed it was within her powers to define parameters for the work of journalists, at the expense of the public’s right to know.
This must never be allowed.