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Editorial Policy Change Keeps South African Broadcaster From Airing Protests


And now - a story about how presidential news is covered in South Africa. There's a new editorial policy at the South African Broadcasting Corporation. And it has led to accusations of censorship. Top management has quit. Senior journalists have been suspended. And President Jacob Zuma's opponents say he is manipulating the news for political gain. Peter Granitz reports from Johannesburg.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Riots swept across Pretoria last week in anger over the ruling African National Congress's choice of a mayoral candidate. Five people were killed. Shops were looted. Dozens of buses were set alight. But the SABC didn't show the story because a new editorial policy imposed in late May prohibits airing the video of violent protest.

Three journalists were suspended after disagreeing with management, which did not want SABC reporters covering protests from the Right2Know campaign, like this one outside the SABC headquarters in Johannesburg.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).

GRANITZ: On the sidelines of the protest, SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago says the corporation is not shirking its duties.

KAIZER KGANYAGO: We'll still continue to tell people what has happened. But we have just taken a stand to not be seen to be encouraging it.

GRANITZ: Not encouraging it - Kganyago says showing violence amounts to encouraging violence. Acting CEO Jimi Matthews quit Monday and posted his resignation letter to Twitter. He writes that a corrosive atmosphere at the company negatively affected his moral judgment. Matthews did not return messages left on his cell phone.

The SABC has the largest media reach in South Africa. It has reporters all over the country, several radio and TV stations, and it delivers content in all 11 local languages and South African Sign Language. University of Johannesburg journalism professor Jane Duncan participates in the Right2Know campaign, a post-apartheid movement centered on freedom of expression and access to information.

Duncan says qualified SABC reporters have produced critical and informative content in the past, which makes the censorship policy especially troubling.

JANE DUNCAN: They're making it impossible for journalists to fulfill the ethical obligations. I really wouldn't be surprised if we see in the coming weeks the remaining SABC journalists who still have ethics downing their tools.

GRANITZ: The board of directors at the SABC are vetted by Parliament and appointed by President Zuma. Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng controls the day-to-day operations, including the news department. He's reported to have told staff to write only positive stories about Zuma. His spokesman denies this.

The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition to Zuma's ANC party, has pounced on the upheaval at the SABC, sensing a political opening. DA leader Mmusi Maimane says Motsoeneng instituted the new editorial policy to paint a rosy and inaccurate picture of South Africa ahead of August elections.

MMUSI MAIMANE: He's turning a public broadcaster into a state broadcaster.

GRANITZ: SABC journalists are not commenting publicly on the turmoil. There are more anti-censorship protests planned. It's unclear if anyone from the SABC will cover them. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Granitz