The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) on Friday said it was perturbed about developments at eNCA, where news anchors Xoli Mngambi and Jane Dutton were taken off air after apologising for raising their views about the government’s cigarette ban.
Mngambi and Dutton have not been on air since Tuesday morning, but eNCA insists that they have not been suspended.
On Tuesday, Mngambi and Dutton issued an on-air apology for comments made during an eNCA news broadcast on Monday that implied that Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had undermined President Cyril Ramaphosa’s authority when banning the sale of tobacco during level 4 of the national Covid-19 lockdown.
Mngambi and Dutton said, in a “very public show of force”, Dlamini-Zuma had showed “who’s controlling South Africa’s narrative right now – not the president, but… Dlamini-Zuma”. They added that Dlamini-Zuma had used her “power and considerable influence” to ensure the ban would continue, calling South Africa a “police state under the control of renegade ministers and the security forces”.
On Tuesday morning, at the start of the 7am broadcast, Mngambi and Dutton apologised “unreservedly”.
“From Wednesday, they were no longer hosting the morning show on eNCA,” says Sanef.
“There has been no public explanation for their absence. Sanef understands that, a few months ago, eNCA management introduced a requirement for its anchors to be more opinionated and to open their shows on social and political issues. So it seems that when Mngambi and Dutton aired their comments, they were not violating any internal policy.”
‘Potentially undermining freedom of expression’
Sanef said it was “deeply concerned” about the “potential undermining of freedom of expression” at eNCA.
“Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of the South African Constitution and enshrined in Section 16. We remind the channel’s management of former president Nelson Mandela’s statement that a ‘critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy’, a view with which we fully agree. Issues regarding news versus comment often given rise to a great deal of unhappiness with the media.
“We think it important to reiterate key provisions of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa’s Code of Conduct applicable to eNCA. Section 28.1.3 of the Subscription Code clearly requires that ‘only that which may reasonably be true… may be presented as fact… If a report is… founded on opinion… it must be presented in such manner as to indicate clearly that such is the case’.
“Management’s strategy to include more personalised commentary in the news broadcasts has paved the way for an unfortunate mixing of news and comment in such a way that the reasonable viewer might have been left in doubt as to what was fact and what was the newsreaders’ opinion.”
Sanef said it respected the right of media companies to apply their own editorial guidelines, quality control measures, internal policies and directives, but this should never be at odds with the Constitution and industry codes.
Sanef added that it would write to eNCA acting managing director Norman Munzhelele, asking for an explanation about why Mngambi and Dutton had been taken off air.
“We believe that news management should defend journalists and their freedom of expression. The incident follows incidents of political interference in the newsroom in December that led to the exit of the previous head of news. We will also be raising these issues in our meeting,” Sanef said.
On Thursday, Munzhelele said: “eNCA anchors Jane Dutton and Xoli Mngambi have not been suspended. This is an internal matter and remains between the employer and employees. The employer wishes to respect the rights of the employees in this regard.”
Mngambi’s and Dutton’s remarks were made against the backdrop of the government’s about-turn on the sale of tobacco during the level 4 lockdown, which started on 1 May.
Last Thursday, Ramaphosa announced the country would exit the Covid-19 lockdown in a phased manner, saying the sale of tobacco, which was banned during level 5, would be allowed during level 4, which came into effect on Friday.
However, when Dlamini-Zuma later announced the regulations for level 4, smokers’ hopes that they would soon light up a legally obtained cigarette went up in smoke. She said the sale of tobacco products would remain banned under level 4.
This led to speculation that Ramaphosa might have been undermined by his political opponents in the ANC.
However, Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu tweeted on Friday: “The NCCC (National Coronavirus Command Council) changed its own view on the selling of tobacco on Level 4 of the lockdown, which was pronounced by the president. The president fully agreed and endorsed the non-sale of tobacco as an outcome of the consultation process.
“Any suggestions that the president was undermined by members of his Cabinet are tantamount to falsehoods and misleading of the public. It’s clear that some lobbyists will use and do anything to get their way.”
In his weekly newsletter, Ramaphosa wrote that the NCCC had taken a “collective decision” on the matter.
“After careful consideration and discussion, the [NCCC] reconsidered its position on tobacco. As a result, the regulations ratified by Cabinet and announced by Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on 29 April extended the prohibition,” wrote the president.