South Africa: Zikalala Tells of 'Positive News' Policy At SABC

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The journalistic mindset of South Africa’s public broadcaster SABC came into sharp focus last week when its Head of News spelled out its “no go” areas. SABC head of news Snuki Zikalala last week defended the public broadcaster's policy that "every story must affect the country positively" and that critical journalism did not mean negative journalism.

Zikalala told delegates to a South African Human Rights Commission debate that while the SABC was not made up of "sunshine journalists", neither its policy regarding its news coverage, nor its board would ever had allowed the broadcaster to run with a story such as the Sunday Times' story alleging Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was "a drunk and a thief" .

The commission hosted a panel discussion last week on freedom of expression versus privacy . High-profile media commentators grappled with the issue of whether the Sunday Times' story was in the public interest or whether it was a violation of privacy.

While neither the SABC's editorial policy nor its mandate makes any mention of it having to report "positively", Zikalala said it mentioned that the public broadcaster's role should reflect a "plurality of views and a variety of news". This has placed the broadcaster under close scrutiny from lobby groups and the mainstream media.

When asked how the public broadcaster decided whether a story was positive or negative, Zikalala said the broadcaster, which reaches about 24-million viewers daily, "debates each and every story and asks whether it falls within the constitutional framework". He said publishing a story such as that by the Sunday Times involving the health minister was "disrespectful".

Zikalala said there was a growing belief among South African journalists that "if you attack the president you will be very popular". He said that increasingly black journalists were becoming guilty of this. According to the SABC's own research, it had a 93% credibility rating, he said.

The comments came amid a flurry of opposing perspectives on the Sunday Times story and the complaint of theft laid by the Cape Town Medi-Clinic from which the minister's personal medical files were allegedly stolen. South African Medical Association chairman Dr Kgosi Letlape said that medical records should not be disclosed without consent and that medical ethics should never be sacrificed, even in the face of the law.

(Business Day (Johannesburg), 24 October 2007)