Wednesday, 28 November 2012

SABC, Nkandla and Zuma: free speech under the spotlight


The state owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) pulled a local fast food chain’s advert at the 11th hour, with reports initially claiming the advert was “degrading to the president”. The advert, which is available to view on YouTube below, is for a special deal on fish and chips for R25,00:



Before discussing this a little further, in my view, the Fish and Chip Co. are either extraordinarily talented or extremely lucky with the publicity received so far.  As at Wednesday 28 November, the video has over 62 000 views and three sources on YouTube. This is climbing quickly. Local media has jumped all over this.  See, for example, a Google search screenshot below for the term zuma ad banned:

free speech


Every major news orginisation in South Africa is on the story, even major foreign press outlet AFP has run a report on the banned advertisement. So, while the SABC imposes censorship rules that may be designed to protect state interests, the fast food chain is riding an impressive internet and social media advertising campaign that may well exceed expectations for the initial advert. The CEO of Taste Holdings (the corporate umbrella for the fast food chain) initially said the decision was “presumptious” but later decided to withdraw the ad saying:

we haven’t had any complaints but we have decided to withdraw it. I think that controversy was not really what was intended

Now, onto the issue at hand.  As you can see from the video above it is a satire or parody on President Zuma’s large number of wives and children (unorthodox to many Western countries), cultural differences and government (mis)spending.  The SABC, for their part, make a reasonable case as to why the advert was pulled insisting that it was an implied presidential endorsement for the Fish and Chip Co.  Further, the SABC did not want to open itself up to “liability”. Fair enough, I guess...

But, consider these reports by the Sowetan and the UK based Guardian.  The national broadcaster’s head of news, Jimi Matthews, allegedly banned all critical reference to President Zuma’s home in Nkandla, amidst contraversory around its funding and apparent excessiveness.  Words such as “Zumaville”, “Compound”, and “Homestead” are banned  by the SABC because they may be associated with past racist tendencies. 

If the State owned broadcaster sees fit to ban the use of words (essentially censoring news) and ban adverts that may be seen as derogatory towards the ruling party or president, we are, as a constitutional democracy that thrives on free speech and public debate, heading into dangerous waters (Secrecy Bill ring any bells?)

To put this in context, let me refer you to Dario Milo’s (media law expert) speech at the Media Freedom Day on 19 October 2012.  For present purposes, the key points were as follows:
  • The constitutional court has constantly reinforced the importance of freedom of expression. It is fundamental to any democracy and the “print, broadcast and electronic media have a particular role in the protection of freedom of expression in our society”. 
  • As noted in the speech, and a point I must make, I am not for one second suggesting that freedom of expression is absolute.  It must be looked at in the context of our constitution and the right to limit any freedom, if reasonable in the circumstances.
  • The recent matter of Print Media South Africa v Minister of Home Affairs,  from paragraph 71 of the judgment sums it up: “In my view, the mainstay of the law is to encourage lawful conduct rather than to seek to guarantee lawfulness by restricting conduct altogether”. Nail. On. The. Head.

Although the SABC are essentially saying the banning of the advertisment is policy to avoid negative publicity and potentially legal action, there is a worrying trend developing. Protection of political interests should not be tolerated.  One understands a decision made for pragmatic reasons, but political interferance must be limited at all costs. 

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