South African state broadcasting company SABC has been ordered not to report negative coverage of President Jacob Zuma, because he “deserves a certain degree of respect”.
The order was reportedly given by Hlaudi Motsoeneng, controversial Chief Operation Officer (COO) of SABC and President Zuma confidante, who also told the company’s camera crew they needed retraining because they “make him look shorter” than he really is.
The news comes as President Zuma faces a court order to repay R7.8m (£385,000) to the government for upgrades made to his private home – around 3 per cent of the total amount of public funding money spent on his house.
SABC news station, which is owned by the South African government, has been criticised for broadcasting “propaganda” in recent months and for censoring its news by failing to show coverage of recent violent protests in the country.
Speaking to local news source City Press, Mr Motsoeneng denied the claims. A SABC spokesperson later said: “It is not true. People are just obsessed with Hlaudi”.
An investigation by the newspaper’s sister publication Rapport suggested that staff at the broadcasting company were also being “brainwashed” by being forced to listen to the COO’s “rediffusion” sessions twice a week.
Rapport reported that a ban had also been placed on the reading of any newspaper headlines on air and that Jimi Matthews, the acting head of news, had blacklisted editors and journalists from rival publications.
“Then came the requirement that at least 80 per cent of news coverage had to be positive. That raised a few eyebrows, but we knew there were big problems when Hlaudi suddenly banned coverage of violent protests,” the source said.
“That’s when the stories we covered started changing completely. Municipal and political stories slowly but surely began disappearing and the focus shifted to covering ceremonies rather than issues.”
Mr Matthews publically resigned from his post at SABC on Monday, leading staff at the station to threaten a news blackout, claiming Mr Motsoeneng “rules like a dictator”.
Posting an open resignation letter on Twitter, Mr Matthews said: ““For many months I have compromised the values that I hold dear under the mistaken belief that I could be more effective inside the SABC than outside, passing comment from the side-lines,” he elaborated.
“In the process, the prevailing corrosive atmosphere has impacted negatively on my moral judgement and has made me complicit in many decisions which I’m not proud of.”
“What is happening at the SABC is wrong and I can no longer be a part of it,” he concluded.
The South African National Editors Forum has called on SABC leadership to reverse its policies to censor the news.
“The apartheid regime used the SABC as a propaganda tool but was not able to dupe the South African public,” spokesman Mpumelelo Mkhabela said. “We call on the leadership of the SABC to urgently reverse its decision to censor the news and allow its journalists to work in a free environment that does not compromise their ethics.”