Yesterday, a High court judge in Johannesburg ruled that the SABC was guilty of manipulating the news in 2005 and 2006, in a ruling that will boost criticism of the way the South African public broadcaster covers politics and cranked up the propaganda for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Judge Neels Claassen ruled in the South Gauteng High Court that there had been widespread manipulation of news under the SABC’s former head of news, Snuki Zikalala, and that he had "dishonestly tried to cover up this manipulation".
With political interference and the hand of President Jacob Zuma clear in the appointment of Phil Molefe as Mr Zikalala’s replacement, Judge Claassen’s remarks are yet another reminder of how easily the SABC can be used as a political weapon by the government of the day.
Court affidavits by former SABC head of radio news Pippa Green and John Perlman, a former presenter on SAfm, documented interference by Mr Zikalala in day-to-day operations at the SABC.
Mr Zikalala went to Zimbabwe for the 2005 elections to negotiate the terms of SABC’s coverage with Robert Mugbe’s henchmen, contrary to normal procedure.
When he came back, he warned reporters at a meeting the day after the elections he would "take action" against Ms Green and any reporter who expressed an "opinion" on Zimbabwe.
The judgment relates to Mr Zikalala’s 2006 blacklisting of analysts critical of former president Thabo Mbeki, and the SABC’s coverage of elections in Zimbabwe in 2005.
The ruling comes on the back of a recent finding by a London based African think-tank Africa Confidential which implicated Thabo Mbeki in the Zimbabwe vote rigging that kept Robert Mugabe in power after losing first round presidential polls in 2008.
According to London-based think-tank Africa Confidential, former opposition MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai "clearly beat Mugabe" in the first round of voting in March 2008 but was denied power after a plan to steal some of his votes allegedly hatched by Zanu (PF) military junta in connivance with South African officials.
"Taken by surprise, Zanu (PF) delayed announcing the results for six weeks while it concocted a strategy for clinging to power (possibly with South African connivance)," the think-tank said last week. The official results published by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) in May 2008 showed that Mugabe had lost the first round of elections to Tsvangirai but by a narrow margin.
Zanu (PF) bullyboys were then unleashed for the second-round run-off held in June of the same year and Mugabe claimed a dubious victory after Tsvangirai was forced to quit the race. A brutal campaign of violence led by Zimbabwe’s military out to
reverse Mugabe’s shock first round defeat left at least 200 MDC-T supporters dead.
Mbeki, who was the official Southern African Development Community (SADC) mediator in Zimbabwe’s political crisis between 2007 and 2009, never questioned ZEC’s delay in announcing the first round poll results and the subsequent violence that accompanied the run-off. In May 2008, South Africa ganged up with Russia and China to block an American and British-backed proposal to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe over deadly electoral violence.
Pretoria – which as regional power broker has significant influence on international opinion on Zimbabwe – insisted the electoral violence in Zimbabwe was an internal matter that had no impact on regional peace even as it struggled to handle the thousands of refugees that were flocking from its northern neighbour.
Mugabe, who was forced to form a power sharing government with Tsvangirai after the international community including some of his African allies refused to accept his bloody re-election victory in 2008, has already indicated that fresh elections should be held this year.
A referendum on the proposed new constitution that should pave way for enactment of the new governance charter is only expected around June or four months after expiry of the life of the unity government. The former opposition and SADC say this year is too early for elections in a country where the voters’ roll remains chaotic and inaccurate while an exercise to write a new Constitution that should ensure a free and fair vote has been delayed by several months and even then continues to progress at a snail’s pace.
Mbeki’s successor President Jacob Zuma said SADC should help Zimbabwe to craft a roadmap and favourable conditions to make sure outcome of the next election would not be contested. The election roadmap includes adopting a new Constitution, drawing up a fresh voters’ roll, an end to political violence and passing of new electoral rules by Parliament.
The army is already deploying and harassment of MDC-T activists is warming up.
Africa Confidential however contends that keeping the enthusiasts on a leash for at least a year will be hard, not least on Zanu (PF)’s strained financial resources. "Targeting humanitarian aid and agricultural inputs directly to the beneficiaries has eliminated the local party chiefs’ patronage and their ability to skim and profiteer.
By getting the economy going and education and health back on their feet, the MDC has made the peasantry less beholden to Zanu (PF)," said the think-tank.
Donors have since the formation of the coalition bypassed official government channels to provide aid directly to the beneficiaries.