S.A.: Clash of the SABC titans hots up

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SABC group CEO Lulama Mokhobo has taken disciplinary steps against her news chief, Phil Molefe, and is charging him with refusing to accept her authority, the Mail & Guardian has been reliably informed.

At an SABC board meeting this week, Mokhobo discussed the charges she had laid against Molefe, which included her claim that he was demonstrating he would not co-operate with her.

Board members gave Mokhobo the go-ahead to proceed with finalising the issue as soon as possible. The disciplinary hearing is expected to take place as early as next week.

Mokhobo has in past weeks called meetings to try to reach an agreement with Molefe after she placed him on special leave last month, SABC insiders said. However, this had failed to achieve the desired reconciliation. Contacted this week, Mokhobo declined to comment on the issue. “I can only confirm that a board meeting was held yesterday,” she said.

Molefe could not be reached for comment. Corridor talk at the SABC suggests that Molefe would like to become an ambassador for SA, but the M&G could not confirm this.

Mokhobo and Molefe clashed after she was appointed group CEO, a post in which he had been acting until her arrival in January. Molefe had been considered a serious contender for the top broadcasting job and apparently had expectations that he would be appointed, senior SABC sources said.

Earlier it was alleged that Molefe had asked for a R7m payout after he was not given the Chief Executive position and the matter was discussed at board level.

At the time, SABC board chairperson Ben Ngubane, who unilaterally appointed Molefe to the post of news chief without consulting the rest of the board, declined to comment on board discussions when the M&G approached him. But he did say: “If you have heard that Phil Molefe is to be given a R7m payout by the SABC, that is not true. We will not pay him.”

The tension between Mokhobo and Molefe escalated after she called a meeting with him in April and asked to be provided with editorial news diaries so that she could monitor the news line-up. Mokhobo had wanted to see the diaries because she was concerned about a perceived bias in the news.

The meeting came about after Mokhobo claimed that Molefe was giving “unprecedented coverage” to expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema but had only given a “20-something [seconds] sound bite” about President Jacob Zuma’s trip to Korea.

Senior SABC executives said it had been feared Molefe was showing bias because Zuma had to give the final nod after Mokhobo’s name was put forward by the SABC board as its candidate for the chief executive post.

But in his meeting with Mokhobo over the news diaries, Molefe is believed to have countered the allegation that he was providing unbalanced coverage of the news. Molefe later wrote to tell Mokhobo that the matter of her request for copies of the news diaries required “further engagement” because it touched on the SABC’s editorial policies.

The M&G has seen a copy of the legal opinion the SABC obtained from Werksmans Attorneys. It states that, although Mokhobo had interpreted Molefe’s response as a refusal to comply with her request for a daily diary, he had in fact “misinterpreted” SABC policies.

In his letter, Molefe said the role of editor in chief was one of the many responsibilities the chief executive assumed and it should not be confused with the functions of the heads of radio, television or news. “The group chief executive’s role is not to make day-to-day programming or newsroom decisions,” he said.

Werksmans Attorneys found that Molefe had been “selective in his reading of the editorial policies” and his misinterpretation needed to be clarified. “Once the clarification has been made, and he then refuses to comply with the group CEO’s request — at that point a decision to discipline him may be taken,” the legal opinion recommended.

Ahead of the ANC’s contested elective conference in Mangaung, there have been fears at the SABC that the public broadcaster could be plunged into another crisis over control of its editorial content.