Spy Watch

Dubious role of the SSA in the affairs of the SABC

Hlaudi and the spooks
Hlaudi.jpg

The SABC should be a key player in guarding South Africa’s democracy, but the national broadcaster is in disarray and the State Security Agency (SSA) is aggravating the situation.

Last weekend the SSA again discarded the best practice culture of most responsible intelligence services globally that do their best to, at all costs, stay out of the spotlight and out of the media headlines and do their job unobtrusively and discreetly.

In an article, “Hlaudi calls in the spooks”, City Press alleges that the inept and unqualified SABC chief of corporate affairs (CCA), Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has called in the SSA to intimidate SABC staff.

The paper reported a recent incident where SABC staff members were summoned for individual meetings in a 28th floor boardroom at SABC head office.

A man who, introducing himself as an SSA official, took charge of proceedings, informing the SABC employees he had been approached by Motsoeneng to assist the SABC.

Since his legally challenged appointment as CCA, after being relieved of his position as SABC chief operational officer (COO), Motsoeneng simply continued with his demolishing job at the SABC.

It remains incomprehensible that while the Public Protector had found Motsoeneng a “dishonest” employee causing “a toxic failure of corporate governance”, he is allowed to continue with his “wrecking” actions.

Mounting evidence

Evidence has been piling up that the SABC has become an organisation “driven by fear and intimidation” and has become increasingly securitised. For example:

  • SABC staff members complain that their e-mails are monitored and that conference facilities have been bugged;
  • SABC staff contracts have been amended, including a clause they had to sign, forbidding them to talk to the media without permission for a two-year period after they have resigned;
  • “Uncooperative” SABC staff members, falling in disfavour for whatever reason, are subjected to harassment and intimidation, with charges of insubordination and suspension popular, as are threats of dismissal and actual dismissal – often without following the correct procedure.

According to research by City Press, in the last two years, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has heard 190 cases brought by SABC staff – 109 in the past nine months.

In some instances, the intimidation and harassment were particularly sinister and menacing, including death threats via text messages, being shot at, having their houses burgled and the mechanics of their vehicles tampered with – a popular method used in Third World countries to get rid of opponents.   

The eight journalists suspended earlier in the year for questioning perceived censorship at the national broadcaster, and who lodged a case with the Constitutional Court on the matter, were allegedly purposefully targeted.

police task team has been established to investigate.

Previous SSA assistance

In August 2015, SABC staff in its Durban office were, without prior announcement or explanation, instructed to vacate their offices. Officials from SSA then allegedly spent between two and three hours per office for a purpose unknown to the employees.

They were also instructed to keep quiet about the “operation” and were warned “that action would be taken” should they tell anybody.

Despite formal requests, no explanation for the search was given and the president of the Broadcast Electronic Media and Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu), Hannes du Buisson, concluded: “I think this is an intimidation plot to prevent staff from disseminating any information in the future.”

“We do not see any reason for the SSA to lock employees out of their offices, remaining inside alone. The SABC is a workplace, not a law enforcement agency or some secret organisation where SSA agents have free reign,” he said.

At the time opposition parties, particularly the DA and Cope, criticised the search and demanded an explanation from Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.

At the same time the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) lamented: “What the SSA had done, was a violation of constitutional freedom and outrageous.”

These two incidents aggravated conditions at the SABC where there is overwhelming evidence of mismanagement and corruption on a massive scale.

Even if the SABC is a “national key point” the tightening up of security measures is excessive. And, according to legal experts, the involvement of SSA in what appears to be internal SABC affairs and not of national security concern, is illegal in terms of the National Strategic Intelligence Act.

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago’s remark, describing the SSA’s investigation as “standard procedure” done to “constantly identify threats towards acts of terror, espionage and other related risks”, borders on the absurd.

“Acts of terror”?

Facts point to it being more a case of SABC employees being terrorised.  

Kganyago also failed to convince when he said: “The SABC would like to put it on record that this process is not in any way a move to undermine the corporation’s business units, instil fear among staff members or invade their privacy.”

But as a seasoned journalist rebutted: “Sadly, shockingly, this is exactly what has happened through this process. SABC workers are scared, suspicious, have been deliberately kept in the dark, and are wondering what's going on, have not been communicated with, don't feel valued and trusted …”

It would appear as if some of those in authority at the SABC, in particular “wrecking ball” Motsoeneng, and the SSA fail to understand that the SABC is an independent public broadcaster protected by the Constitution.

This means that SABC journalists and support staff must be free to report the news without being intimidated by intelligence operatives.

The manner in which the SSA was used constitutes unbridled intimidation and harassment and is wrong. It is a tactic used by tyrants, dictators and one-party states. It is uncalled for in a constitutional democracy and the SSA should know better.

 

by Garth Cilliers

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