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SABC doccie cut worries FXI

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) views with concern the announcement by the SABC that it has delayed the broadcast of SABC 1’s “Emthunzini we Ntaba” documentary on circumcision due to ‘a new phase of consultation’, fearing political pressure forced the hand of the corporation.

The FXI has always argued that it is the responsibility of the public broadcaster to engage the public in consultations around its mandate and its programming. Indeed, that position is supported by Section 6(7) of the Broadcasting Act, which states: “The Corporation [SABC] must provide suitable means for regular inputs of public opinion on its services and ensure that such public opinion is given due consideration.” While this section speaks to general public opinion on the SABC’s services, it should be read as including public opinion on specific broadcasts as well.


However, in the pursuit of the eliciting of “regular inputs of public opinion”, FXI says the SABC cannot be expected to compromise Section 6(3) of the same Act, which states: “In terms of this charter, the Corporation, in pursuit of its objectives and in the exercise of its powers, enjoys freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence as enshrined in the Constitution.” That independence is constrained if, after a film is made and scheduled, the broadcaster is pressured into rescheduling and renewing its consultations, FXI explains: “Producers can also not be expected to be forced into endless rounds of consultation without ever being able to decide that a film has finally been completed. It is, in fact, a principle of broadcasting that once a film has been scheduled, it should not be withdrawn because such withdrawal constitutes censorship.”

Regarding the specific case of “Emthunzini we Ntaba”, FXI is concerned that the SABC is being pressured because of the extreme sensitivity of the NHC, Contralesa and the National House of Traditional Leaders. “Our understanding of the programme is that it does not suggest that circumcision is the transmitter of disease. What it points out, however, is that circumcision that is performed in an unhealthy, unclean environment or with unclean instruments, can be potentially dangerous. Surely there can be no dispute about this?

“Rather than opposing the broadcast in its totality, the NHC and Contralesa should support the call for circumcisions to be done in a healthy manner – particularly when we now know that circumcisions assist in reducing the spread of HIV. It certainly is in the public interest to be educated about the dangers of circumcisions that are incorrectly performed,” FXI states.

There therefore has to be a limit to the amount and kind of consultation that it is expected of the SABC to engage in, FXI reiterates. Consultation is important in terms of the SABC’s general services and even in terms of the content of specific films. However, once producers have decided that a film is ready to air, the consultation process has ceased, FXI believes. Thereafter, concerns should be dealt with not through censorship but by having panel discussions after the film, as has happened many times in the past. In the case of “Emthunzini we Ntaba”, however, the panel discussion is replacing the film, setting a negative precedent and indicating to political parties and civil society groups that if the appropriate pressure can be brought to bear on the SABC, the public broadcaster can be made to buckle.

Political pressure

The FXI has consistently defended the right of the SABC to be independent of political pressure. “We also believe that the SABC should be protected against pressure from civil society if that pressure undermines the journalistic independence of the SABC and its staff. We are especially concerned when such undermining is done in the name of consultation. Furthermore, consultation – in the manner we mentioned above – must include a broad diversity of public opinion and cannot be restricted to persons holding a single viewpoint on an issue.”

As for the complaint about “gruesome visual material” that, it is claimed, is present in the last two episodes, the SABC should deal with this as it does with other instances of “gruesome visual material”, says FXI: with warnings and by classifying the shows for particular age groups.

“We do not believe that withdrawing the show will be in anyone’s interest, least of all those young men who undergo circumcision,” FXI concludes.

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