JOHANNESBURG – The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and the Press Gallery Association (PGA) have welcomed the decision by the Western Cape High Court to grant an interim interdict against the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications holding a hearing of a briefing by the SA Broadcasting Corporation behind closed doors. The hearing would have discussed the SABC’s “functionality”, its turnaround strategy for the broadcaster and the appointment of SABC Group chief executive Solly Mokoetle.
A parliamentary spokesman had said that the decision to exclude the media and public was because of what emerged from the briefing “related to pending litigation or may lead to litigation” and the committee wanted to demonstrate its respect for legal processes.
However, Sanef and the PGA said they were deeply concerned by the committee’s decision which had the effect of undermining constitutional values of openness and transparency relating to the affairs of the SABC, a public body, and therefore adversely affecting the constitutional rights of the public to receive information of clear public interest and importance.
The two organisations pointed out that meetings of parliamentary committees were open to the public and the media played a vital role in informing the public about parliament’s work so that it could participate fully in SA’s democracy – values upheld on numerous occasions by the courts. The issues to come before the committee about the public broadcaster were of overwhelming public interest and the reasons advanced for the closed hearing were not sufficient to warrant a ban on the media attending the hearing.
Sanef and the PGA call on the committee to proceed immediately with the hearings in public so that the public is informed of what is happening at the SABC.
In addition to the court’s requirement that the immediate SABC issue be dealt with in an open and transparent environment, Sanef and the PGA regard the court ruling as having a further highly important consequence in sending a warning to all parliamentary committees to desist from arbitrarily excluding the public from certain hearings which should be open to the public and to the media.
In a climate where SA is immersed in a debate over the seriously negative effects of the Protection of Information Bill on constitutional transparency and the public’s right to know, this interim order strongly discourages politicians from taking it upon themselves to decide what the public should know.