SABC Head of News dismissed

2 February 2022
South Africa’s public broadcaster SABC dismissed its Head of News on Friday with immediate effect, citing a breakdown in trust. 
SABC HQ South Africa
South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC) Television Park in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. It offers television facilities. Credit: THEGIFT777/iStock

In a letter sent to SABC’s Group Executive News and Current Affair, Phathiswa Magopeni, on Thursday, SABC CEO Madoda Mxakwe informed her that the public broadcaster would be terminating her contract with “immediate effect” from 28 January.

The decision comes after a disciplinary hearing in December, which ruled that Magopeni was guilty of misconduct for violating a court order by failing to appropriately prevent the broadcast of an indicted episode of investigative programme, Special Assignment. During the disciplinary process, Ms. Magopeni voiced additional grievances, including a claim made against Mxakwe and SABC Board Chairperson, Bongumusa Makhathini, for their alleged editorial interference into SABC News. She alleged they instructed her to conduct an unscheduled interview with President Cyril Ramaphosa during last year’s local government elections campaign.

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Advocate Nazeer Cassim SC, who chaired the hearing, advised that Ms. Magopeni be given a warning for her misconduct, but added that the SABC should also “adopt a sanction which is consistent with that of a breakdown in the trust relationship between employer and employee” if she failed to distance herself from the allegations made against Mr. Mxakwe and Mr. Makhathini. As of Friday, Ms. Magopeni formally declined invitations to submit mitigating factors regarding the additional grievances. The SABC concluded that there was a breakdown of trust between the public broadcaster and Ms. Magopeni, and terminated her contract.

The public broadcaster claimed that its decision to dismiss Ms. Magopeni was “procedurally fair”, adding that the disciplinary proceedings were in line with its Disciplinary Code. In a statement, SABC confirmed:

“Ms Magopeni was afforded an opportunity to submit mitigating factors and to address aggravating factors identified by the SABC, in line with the rule of natural justice and the audi alteram partem principle. In the absence [of] Ms Magopeni’s mitigating factors, the SABC concluded that there is a breakdown in the trust relationship between her and the SABC. Consequently, Ms Magopeni’s services have been terminated with immediate effect and she has been informed accordingly.”

Her dismissal comes one day after the SABC Board announced that it had established a Special Committee to “fairly and expeditiously” investigate Ms. Magopeni’s allegations against Mr. Mxakwe and Mr. Makhathini, in line with SABC Employment and disciplinary policies. The Special Committee’s mandate also includes “making a determination” and recommendations to the SABC Board on further steps to be taken. The SABC Board emphasised that if misconduct was proven, the Board would be “bound in terms of the Broadcasting Act to report the matter to the appointing body”.

It also confirmed that it would not be doing a “running commentary on the grievance process” and added that it trusts that “the public and interested parties will allow due process to be followed. The SABC Board remains committed to transparency and upholding the rule of law.”

In the lead up to the disciplinary process last year, SABC News faced a series of allegations relating to its local election coverage. Magopeni was individually criticised by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, the African National Congress’ (ANC) head of elections, for SABC’s supposedly negative and minimal ANC airtime.

Reactions to Magopeni’s dismissal

The SABC’s decision was met with growing concerns from press unions and media advocacy groups over the public broadcaster’s independence and credibility.

In a joint op-ed published by the Daily Maverick on Sunday, SOS Support Public Broadcast group and William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), vouched for Ms. Magopeni’s key role in helping to rebuild SABC News’ credibility and editorial independence in recent years, including producing SABC’s new editorial policies in 2020. “What is new is that during the past few years the current board and SABC senior executives have made numerous and clear efforts to assert and protect the independence of the broadcaster… That the board has distinguished itself for its independence over the past few years makes the allegations by Ms. Magopeni all the more concerning.”

For this reason, in the op-ed, they assure that “whatever we may feel about the decision to fire Magopeni, or the allegations she has levelled against the SABC chair and the GCEO, it would be a gross mischaracterisation to suggest that the SABC has returned to the Motsoeneng era” – a reference to the previous mismanagement and political interference under SABC’s former acting Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

“What we need to see and will continue to call for is openness, transparency and accountability” – Media Monitoring Africa and SOS Support Public Broadcast

SABC News is the fourth most trusted news brand in South Africa, accounting for 78% of public trust, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s (RISJ) 2021 Digital News Report. It reaches 53% of the population offline and 51% online weekly.

The op-ed also contained a warning against calls for Parliament to intervene, explaining that political parties would “further cloud the issues”, and secondly, that parliamentary intervention “would constitute a direct incursion into the internal affairs of the SABC in what is a senior management responsibility.”

“What we need to see and will continue to call for is openness, transparency and accountability”, the organisations concluded.

The Campaign for Free Expression, the Right2Know campaign and the South African National Editors’ Forum have all expressed similar concerns.

Ms. Magopeni is reportedly planning to take legal action to challenge her dismissal.

As a national public broadcaster, SABC must ensure that it protects the independence and credibility it has spent the past few years rebuilding, which the Public Media Alliance has monitored and supported. Such serious allegations must also be dealt with transparently and with full accountability. PMA will continue to monitor the situation.