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'Broke' SABC closes five foreign news bureaux

Things will never be the same again at the SABC. Ruined by years of, among others, financial mismanagement, excessive overspending, internal power struggles, political interference, inadequate state funding and lately a litany of court battles, the once-profitable public broadcaster - now a financial skeleton - has embarked on a severe cost-cutting exercise. Its latest decision includes the closing of five foreign news bureaux and the scaling down of news operations in several countries.
“We are closing down another five of our international news bureaux in Beijing (China), Dakar (Senegal), Brussels (Belgium), Sao Paulo (Brazil) and one of the two offices in New York (US),” Prof Phil Mtimkulu, interim board deputy chair standing in for absent chair Irene Charnley, told a press briefing held late last week, Friday, 4 September 2009, at the SABC headquarters in Johannesburg.

He also said the SABC is scaling down its news operations in other international countries, actively keeping SA correspondents in London (UK), Harare (Zimbabwe) and the United Nations in New York, but contracting locally-based journalists from Kenya and Nigeria to file reports from these countries.

The process of closing these bureaux began on Friday and all closures will be fully completed by the end of December 2009.

Launched almost two years ago amid much fanfare by former news boss Snuki Zikalala with the blessing of former CEO Dali Mpofu, the 13 international news bureaux were given the mandate to catapult the SABC into the throne of ‘Africa's news leader'. However, while news staff worked hard sometimes under difficult conditions to cover international news ‘from an African perspective', the cost to maintain these offices proved too much to bear, pushing Zikalala's controversial news division to constantly overspend its budget.

Three bureaux (DRC, Washington and Jamaica) were consequently closed early this year to ease the financial burden.

The SABC said that the approved budget for this financial year is just under R37 million (R36 992 000), and leaving them open would have led to the network spending R60 million.

Even though the SABC's dream of establishing itself as ‘Africa's news leader' had evaporated by continuously closing down these offices, the decision, however, means R7 million will be saved!

Workers plying their trade in these bureaux have been told they will not lose their jobs, but instead either recalled to SA or ‘redeployed' to the remaining bureaux.

“The need to ensure that SA voice tells compelling international news prompted the launch of these bureaux, but we realised later that strategy and budget didn't match, that is why we made this decision,” interim board member Libby Lloyd said, as her colleague Suzanne Vos, acting CEO Gab Mampone and spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago looked on.

Meanwhile, the SABC said the remaining debt owing to independent producers is now R18 million, down from around R60 million three months ago. The public broadcaster also said it will ‘soon' announce the name of the permanent news director from four potential candidates, denying a daily newspaper report that Phil Molefe is already ‘the chosen one'.
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About Issa Sikiti da Silva

Issa Sikiti da Silva is a winner of the 2010 SADC Media Awards (print category). He freelances for various media outlets, local and foreign, and has travelled extensively across Africa. His work has been published both in French and English. He used to contribute to as a senior news writer.