The ongoing battle between the SABC hierarchy and its news editor in chief, Phathiswa Magopeni, has caused a storm in the public broadcaster, and there are indications of deep-seated political interference.
After finding Magopeni guilty of misconduct for failing to stop the broadcast of an interdicted Special Assignment episode and issuing her with a written warning, the SABC has embarked on another process to get rid of her.
The broadcaster has asked Magopeni to submit a mitigation argument for the case that was already concluded on December 23.
City Press can also reveal that the public broadcaster is again going after Magopeni, this time for filing a grievance against chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini and CEO Madoda Mxakwe.
In the grievance letter sent to the board in November, which City Press has seen, Magopeni complained about the duo’s interference in editorial policy. The two are also unhappy about Magopeni’s submission to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) regarding the ANC’s breach of electoral code of conduct.
In the grievance letter, Magopeni complained about the harassment, intimidation and verbal abuse experienced by SABC journalists from senior ANC officials, including its deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, Fikile Mbalula and Pule Mabe.
She cited incidents at the IEC results operating centre in Pretoria when Duarte allegedly accused the SABC of being biased against the ANC in its election coverage.
“She [Duarte] started by saying: ‘We’ve been monitoring and watching you. You’re anti-ANC, you hate the ANC and your coverage has been biased against the ANC.’ She further said that I had de-campaigned the ANC during the local government elections campaign. She told me she had spoken to the board about my conduct. I told her that she was not going to intimidate me and that I was not going to discuss SABC institutional issues at the results operating centre,” the letter read, in part.
Magopeni also cited an incident during the election campaign in the Free State when Mbalula accused her of de-campaigning the governing party. She claimed he had instructed her to change the headline straps that were being run, despite visuals confirming that the public broadcaster was doing the correct thing.
She immediately wrote a formal letter informing Makhathini and Mxakwe of the incident, and asked them to intervene.
Magopeni wrote: Immediately after that shocking incident, I sent you [Mxakwe] a message at 12h22 and Mr Makhathini informing you of the incident. I am raising this as part of several incidents relating to editorial bullying, intimidation and harassment of SABC news journalists by senior party officials.
However, instead of defending her and the SABC, the two allegedly concurred with the ANC and told her what the party wanted her to do. After she had refused to comply, the two allegedly started sabotaging her.
“In conclusion, I request that the institution report the results operating centre incident to the IEC, as this happened at a time when the electoral code of conduct was in force, so the matter can be heard publicly and journalists called in to give their account. The incident was raised by editors during the news strategy summit on Wednesday, November 17 2021. This is on record. I would like to get a swift response so that I can give feedback to the newsroom,” wrote Magopeni.
The grievance letter divided the board into two camps, with five members supporting Makhathini and Mxakwe in their bid to dismiss Magopeni, and the other five (including deputy chairperson Mamodupi Mohlala) opposing her dismissal.
The board agreed that the matter should be investigated and the two men subjected to a hearing. However, they could not agree on the approach, as those supporting Makhathini and Mxakwe wanted the matter dealt with by an internal chairperson, while the other five wanted an external chairperson, to ensure fairness. One board member said: Those who’re protecting the chairperson want it to be an internal matter, which is wrong, because we can’t be a player and a referee at the same time.
Other board members told City Press they were concerned that no one was being held accountable.
What worried them was that President Cyril Ramaphosa, Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni and Parliament had turned a blind eye to the issue while some people were bringing the public broadcaster into disrepute.
One board member asked: Mitigation and aggravation arguments are submitted to the chair ahead of the verdict and are part of the disciplinary committee process. How can you ask someone to submit a mitigation argument when the case has already been closed, with a verdict?
According to sources, Makhathini and Mxakwe were trying to get rid of Magopeni because they had received a direct order from politicians to do so.
“The fact that she filed a grievance against them about interference in the editorial policy added fuel to the fire. These are the same charges that got [former SABC acting chief operating officer] Hlaudi Motsoeneng fired, and it was the same interference in editorial policy that got Parliament to institute a commission of inquiry led by Joe Thloloe to come up with a clear framework on that editorial policy,” said one source.
In the letter it sent to Magopeni, the SABC cited broken trust between her and the public broadcaster after she reported the ANC to the IEC, and after she filed a grievance against the two bosses.
Another insider said Magopeni had stepped on the toes of certain ANC leaders by defending the independence of the SABC’s editorial policy.
“The pattern of attack on her – first by Duarte at the IEC results operating centre, then Mabe’s verbal attack on her and then Mbalula going on TV and accusing the SABC news team of being responsible for the ANC losing the election, plus the charges against her – show clearly that there’s a witch-hunt to get rid of her. It’s not because she isn’t a capable leader.” The insider said: She’s being hunted for defending the editorial policy, the newsroom and their independence.
Another source said that, during Motsoeneng’s era, he and others were taken to Parliament for a public inquiry into incidents that had occurred at the SABC, including editorial interference.
“There was a special commission set up to look specifically at editorial interference. Now we have people who’re directors – one of them the executive head of the SABC – who’re the custodians of editorial governance and editorial policies, which lie at the heart of South Africa’s business existence, and they think they can manoeuvre their way around. What’s worse is that those policies were put up for a public consultation process, which makes it a public matter. The transgression is serious. This is a policy that’s informed by public opinion, but [some people think] they can shove it under the carpet and simply manage it themselves,” said a board member.
Magopeni also angered the two SABC head honchos by declining a R78 million contract that was supposed to be approved for the procurement of a new editorial system. The CEO, chief financial officer and other group executives approved the acquisition of the system, but the deal could not be finalised without Magopeni’s signature.
Yesterday, Makhathini declined to comment, saying the issue was an operational matter.
He referred inquiries to the SABC’s communication department, which, in turn, referred City Press to the public broadcaster’s statement issued on December 2.
The statement read: “The board takes seriously the grievance lodged by the group executive: news and current affairs, Phathiswa Magopeni, against the chairperson of the board, Bongumusa Makhathini, and the group CEO, Madoda Mxakwe. The board assures the public that the matter is being processed fairly and in accordance with SABC policies. The board believes that the processes under way should be allowed to conclude and will not comment further at this stage.”