Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
15 October 2008

The SABC and the Zuma interview

The SABC has a legal mandate to act as a public broadcaster to inform and educate South Africans. In terms of the Broadcasting Act, the public broadcaster “must provide significant news and public affairs programming which meets the highest standards of journalism, as well as fair and unbiased coverage, impartiality, balance and independence from government, commercial and other interests”.

This Act must be interpreted in the light of the values and rights enshrined in the Constitution – including the right to freedom of expression and the right to human dignity.

When political leaders are in the news, it would therefore be perfectly legitimate for the SABC to interview those leaders – even at length – to ask them the challenging questions that would allow voters to form opinions about those leaders and the events in the news. As long as this is done in a fair manner to cover all aspects of the news events and as long as individual South Africans are not denied access to all the relevant information they need to make informed decisions. The Constitution requires the public broadcaster to provide a wide array of ideas and views because where individuals are deprived of such views their human dignity is affected.

As I understand the Constitutional Courts interpretation of the right to human dignity, it would require the public broadcaster to provide individuals with sufficient, clear and comprehensive information to enable them to make decisions about their own lives, thus about who they are and how they want to live their lives. This would include information that will empower individuals to make informed decisions about how they are going to vote or which political party they wish to join (or leave). When individuals are deprived of information or provided with one-sided information, the dignity of those individuals are not respected or protected because those individuals are denied the opportunity to act according to their own conscience and beliefs. They are denied full agency.

I am therefore not sure whether the decision by the SABC to have a long interview with the President of the ANC in prime time tonight was either wise or legally and constitutionally justified. Mr Jacob Zuma is the leader of the largest political party in South Africa – albeit a party who seems to be splitting in two – so the SABC was clearly entitled to interview him at length and to grill him on the most recent developments in his party.

But that would only give listeners and viewers half the story. A broadcaster that respected the dignity of its listeners and viewers would also interview (at length) other role players in this drama to present their side of the story so that ordinary voters could then decide whether they wanted to stick with the ANC or whether they wanted to follow the Lekota faction. If the SABC only interviews Zuma and ignores Lekota, it is in effect disrespecting the human dignity of ordinary individuals, who are not treated as people with agency who have a right to make up their own minds about issues.

In such a scenario the SABC becomes a propaganda tool of the ANC, used to try and minimise the effects of the split by giving the leader of the ANC extended free coverage in an attempt to help stop the political bleeding of his party. It is difficult not to view the decision of the SABC to interview Zuma at length at this particular juncture as a move to act as the ANC’s propaganda arm. Failure to provide other important leaders in this drama (Lekota or Shilowa) equal or almost equal time would signal an utter disregard for the dignity of viewers and listeners and would not be commensurate with the legal mandate of the SABC.

Failure to treat the major role players in this developing political drama in an even-handed and fair way would suggest that the SABC is an ANC lackey and that it has about as much credibility in the news department as George Bush has in the weapons of mass destruction department.

Not that I am surprised. After all, Snuki (Phd Bulgaria) and his henchmen are in charge at Faulty Towers again.

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