Pretoria – In a surprise move the SABC on Monday night reportedly fired four of its employees who were earlier suspended.
SAfm current affairs executive producer Krivani Pillay, RSG executive editor Foeta Krige, senior investigative journalist Jacques Steenkamp and senior journalist Suna Venter were fired with immediate effect by the broadcaster.
They have vowed to go to court to fight the public broadcaster over the decision to first suspend them, and now dismiss them.
Attorneys representing the axed SABC journalists have indicated that they would be taking the matter to the Labour Court as early as Thursday.
The lawyers believe that they have a strong case against the defiant broadcaster as the dismissals were viewed as being inconsistent with the supreme law of the country.
Attorney Anton van der Bilj, the head of the Labour Court department at trade union Solidarity, said they were notified about the decision to fire the journalists at 7pm on Monday.
“We were informed at 7pm that they have been fired for contravening the SABC policy.
“We will apply to the Labour Court on Thursday that the dismissals be set aside. This is unheard of, such a decision can’t be made,” he said.
Solidarity had wanted that the suspensions and disciplinary processes against journalists opposed to censorship at the broadcaster be set aside, “pending the adjudication” by the Constitutional Court of the lawfulness of the SABC’s “censorship instructions”.
Van der Bilj said they had tried to reason with the SABC to no avail.
“We tried to keep the gloves on, but the SABC seemed not keen on reaching an amicable solution. The gloves are now off!”
Speaking to Independent Media, one of the axed journalists said the SABC management had told them that their “continued acts of misconduct had become intolerable and our employment is thus terminated with immediate effect”.
The dismissal of the four comes after the SABC refused to back down on its decision to ban the broadcast of visual footage of violent protests and destruction of public institutions.
However, the public broadcaster has denied ever adopting a policy to ban coverage of violent or other protests.
This is according to its acting group executive: news and current affairs, Maloko Tebele, in his answering affidavit in the high court in Pretoria.
The Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) is seeking an urgent interdict against the implementation of what it termed the SABC’s policy and practice not to cover violent and other protests.
The matter will be heard by Judge John Murphy on Wednesday.
The foundation will ask for an interim interdict, pending the final determination of the issue, either by way of a review of the SABC’s editorial policies or final determination of the proceedings in this regard before the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).
While Tebele said the respondent would not oppose the granting of the interdict relating to what the foundation called its ban on covering marches and protests, it would not relent on broadcasting visual footage of violent protests and the destruction of public institutions.
According to Tebele, the SABC had been covering protests and marches all along.
“The only aspect which the SABC seeks to avoid is the broadcasting of visuals of the violent protests that are on the rise and which involve the destruction of public institutions.”
Head of the foundation, Francis Antonie, said in his affidavit that the SABC had adopted a “blanket and inflexible policy” which had resulted in its censoring the news and not covering, or only partially covering, protest action.
This was set out in a press release issued by SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
But Tebele denied it was a policy and said this was merely an internal editorial instruction issued by SABC management in line with the prescripts regulating the broadcaster.
He also denied that the matter was urgent and said the issues had already been dealt with by Icasa.
The broadcast watchdog had ordered the SABC to lift its ban on broadcasting footage of violent protests. The SABC intends to fight this ruling on review.
Tebele said the act of destruction was merely criminal conduct.
He said, for example, that the burning of schools in Vuwani had nothing to do with the protest for municipal service delivery.
Tebele referred to some of the violent behaviour which occurred during protests and said these flared up once some of the community members saw SABC cameras.
Antonie expressed his concern over the timing of the SABC “policy” and “censorship” so close to the local government elections on August 3.
“The timing is either most unfortunate, or indicative of something far more sinister.
“It is not open to the SABC, or those who exercise control thereover, unilaterally to distort the information received by the public.
“Absence of information and half truths are as damaging and misleading as deliberate misrepresentation.”
Antonie said it appeared the purpose of the “censorship decision” was a political one, designed to shield politicians and public bodies from scrutiny, when their actions or omissions had elicited mass protest.
He said this application concerned the proper functioning, integrity and independence of South Africa’s national public broadcaster.
“The urgency in this matter is compounded by the proximity of the local elections and the need for transparency in relation to protests against political parties or leaders,” he added.
“The public rely on the SABC to broadcast such protests, regardless of their political sensitivity or violence.
“By failing to do so, the SABC may well mislead the public on the eve of elections regarding politically sensitive matters,” he went on to say.
Antonie said that given the proximity of the local elections, every day that the news was not properly reported, resulted in misinformation.
Tebele vehemently denied that the instruction regarding SABC news policy had anything to do with the local elections or at censoring news.
“I deny that the SABC has withheld any information from the public, amounting to a potential shield of political leaders or entities from public scrutiny.
“I note that the urgency in this matter is linked to the local government elections, which implies that a lot of properties will be destroyed before those elections and that it is in the public interest that people should see how those public institutions are being destroyed.”
The court action against the SABC by the foundation, and the Icasa matter, come at a time when the public broadcaster is embroiled in a public spat, not only with civil society organisations, but with its employees as well.
Eight of them – including the sacked foursome – submitted papers directly to the Constitutional Court challenging their suspensions pending disciplinary action.