South African minister denies censoring state broadcaster

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African Communications Minister Faith Muthambi denied on Wednesday that she had tried to get the SABC to suppress news of protests and discontent, when she testified to a parliamentary inquiry into a string of scandals at the public broadcaster.

The probe, led by a cross-party panel of MPs, is the latest example of allies of President Jacob Zuma being called to account for alleged misspending or underperformance during his seven years in charge.

The SABC is the primary news source for South Africa’s 54 million people but has been mired in editorial and executive controversy this year, including journalists being told to focus on “sunshine news” and not show footage of violent protests.

All of its directors have resigned over the year, leaving non-executive chairman Mbulaheni Maghuve as the sole member of the board.

In her testimony, Muthambi denied holding any sway over editorial policies such as the ban on violent protest footage, which was introduced shortly before mid-year elections but rescinded after a public outcry.

“I don’t work at the SABC,” she said. “I don’t have any influence in the SABC’s editorial decision.”

She also defended her decision to appoint Hlaudi Motsoeneng as Chief Operating Officer. A court ruled this week that Motsoeneng, who was found to have falsified his academic qualifications, should not hold any position at the SABC and barred him from entering the premises.

Two journalists at the SABC, which reaches more than 20 million people with 18 radio stations and four television channels, gave damning testimony against Motsoeneng this week, describing his “reign of terror” in the newsroom.

One of the journalists said it was an “open secret” at the SABC that Motsoeneng was protected by Zuma, whose popularity has taken a hit as he grapples with near record unemployment, a weak economy and a string of personal scandals.

Motsoeneng was not immediately available to comment. He has said that showing violent protest footage would encourage copycat unrest.

Reporting by James Macharia; Editing by Ed Cropley and Ralph Boulton