'Post' contributor Paula Slier: "Employees are scared to speak the truth."
The head of news at the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been accused of acting arbitrarily in unofficially blacklisting eight journalists and commentators. Among the banned journalists is Israel-based freelancer Paula Slier, a Jerusalem Post contributor, who has been barred from reporting because she is a Jew.
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SABC management set up a commission under former SABC head Zwelakhe Sisulu and advocate Gilbert Marcus - after complaints about a ruling, allegedly by news head Snuki Zikalala, that certain commentators and analysts not be used because they were critical of South African President Thabo Mbeki.
The commission, which has now released its findings, said AM Live anchor John Perlman was right when he had said that blacklisting of commentators and analysts was happening "by instruction."
Zikalala ordered an outright ban on reports from Slier because, the commission found, he assumed that since Slier was Jewish she supported Israel.
Zikalala admits to supporting the PLO and justified his ban on Slier, who used to report regularly for the SABC until barred in 2004, by calling the conflict in the Middle East a "Jewish war" and saying the corporation needed someone who was "impartial."
But the commission ruled that Slier's reports were impartial and that the ban was in direct conflict with SABC's policies and bylaws.
Zikalala and Perlman have now been instructed to submit statements explaining their actions to a disciplinary hearing.
Here, in a very personal account of her journalistic motivations and experiences, including with the SABC, Slier laments the growing conformism and culture of censorship in South Africa today:
"I couldn't hear the presenter's question as Kassam rockets had started to explode around me. As she asked again what was happening, a rocket landed just 80 meters behind me. A column of dust filled the television frame and smoke choked my lungs. "I was reporting live from the Israel-Gaza border for Russia Today, a 24-hour English-language TV news channel for which I am the Middle East correspondent. Gilad Shalit had just been kidnapped.
"Two weeks later, Hizbullah had kidnapped two other soldiers and I reported under fire again, this time from the Israel-Lebanon border. In flak jacket and helmet, I went live in front of a closed military zone. It was unnerving during one television report when a dozen or so Katyushas flew over my head, slamming into Kiryat Shmona just in front of me. Then too, the anchor's question faded amid the whistle of missiles and the roar of artillery. Such is the job of the journalist - people were diving for safety while we headed the other way for the story.
"Edward R. Murrow, the legendary broadcaster, once said about television: 'This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.'
"These words are among the reasons I became a journalist and I feel the fight is as important now as it ever was. When I reflect on the kind of journalist I aspire to be, and the caliber of other journalists working here in the Middle East, I'm saddened that for my former bosses at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, hard work, dedication, a commitment to truth and a striving for objectivity are not among the criteria of good journalism.
"SABC is South Africa's national public service broadcaster. Its mandate is to provide free, fair and accurate programming. Through its radio and television channels it broadcasts in 11 languages to more than 30 million people. It's a sad day when the head of news and current affairs of the biggest broadcaster in a land with so many freedoms has become notorious for destroying them.
"Snuki Zikalala is quoted in the SABC inquiry report as saying, 'From the movement where I come from we support the PLO... You can't undermine the Palestinian struggle, you can't. For me it's a principle issue.'
"Zikalala describes the conflict in the Middle East as a 'Jewish war' and accuses me of taking sides. His argument, by inference, is that because I'm Jewish I automatically support the policies of the State of Israel without question, which is simply untrue.
"The situation came to a head in November 2004 when then-PLO chairman Yassir Arafat was dying. I was reporting for SABC as a freelancer in Ramallah - I had since left the corporation where I'd been a senior news reporter and anchor for several years. I was covering the story hourly when suddenly I was told my services would no longer be needed. No explanation was given.
"The inquiry found that Zikalala's direct instruction not to use my reports from the Middle East 'because of alleged bias' was 'improper and against SABC policy.'
"Furthermore, it found that his position was 'motivated by a political position... which has no place whatsoever in a public broadcaster.'
"Encouraging words, but it's alarming that they are said about the chief whip of SABC news.
"Like all professional journalists, my faith remains in the distant reaches of my mind and is nowhere to be found when I am reporting. Everybody carries personal baggage, but it is the job of the professional journalist to move beyond it.
"Over the years my reports have drawn equal criticism from both Jews and Muslims in South Africa - in that I am happy that like the great journalists who are accused by politicians of being right wing and left wing at the same time, I belong to no one. It's ludicrous to say that because a journalist has a certain background they cannot report on a particular subject. Eventually you reach the point where you say that only a particular race can cover a particular story, that a white person shouldn't write about Africa or an Arab about Israel.
"Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that I am now working for Russia - once one of the world's greatest censors - and yet I am free to report on whatever I see fit without fear or favor.
"Russia Today is a state-controlled channel, but it is freer than the SABC. The major difference between pre-1990 Moscow and the Johannesburg of 2006 is that back in the USSR the censorship and the muzzling was backed up by a secret police who had labor camps instead of a public service mandate. At least in communist Russia, the lack of political freedom could be blamed on torture, intimidation and the boot.
"Today, in a South Africa that basks in freedom, employees are scared to speak the truth for fear of becoming sidelined, and so-called journalists take hollow pride in groveling in the footsteps of politicians. There's no excuse for that."
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