When South African President Jacob Zuma delivered his annual State of The Nation address to parliament on February 9, the force of his political argument was backed by a show of force.

Thousands of police officers and hundreds of soldiers were deployed at the houses of parliament in Cape Town to help "maintain law and order".

In the midst of this crisis we were dismissed, fired, reinstated, bullied and we received death threats. We wrote to parliament to say, "Please hear us out. We are telling you that the Broadcasting Act lies in shambles. It's a mandate betrayed. So the Parliamentary Committee are going to decide on what the way forward is for South Africa's public broadcaster.

Thandeka Gqubule, economic editor, SABC

One of the country's main opposition groups, the Economic Freedom Fighters, took to hijacking the event, to heckle and harangue the president, live on television.

Zuma's yearly speech, along with the accompanying opposition theatrics, is one of the few times the president is depicted in a less than flattering light on the state-owned TV network, the SABC.

The SABC is a story in itself. The findings of a parliamentary committee set up to investigate the channel have been damning on issues such as political interference from the Zuma government, financial mismanagement and more.

With fireworks in parliament, the state broadcaster under investigation, we are going to look at the state of the South African media.

In a way, the political sideshow that now accompanies the annual state of the nation address is of the president's own making: Zuma moved the speech from its traditional Friday morning slot to 7pm - taking South African politics into prime time - in search of larger TV audiences.

However the opposition wants those audiences, too - and the EFF's penchant for co-opting the event, upstaging the president with its parliamentary antics, has now been met with an unprecedented show of security that affects the coverage in and around the houses of parliament.

"We're not used to that. Parliament has always been a parliament of the people from the era of Nelson Mandela to the presidents who came after him. And ... now the use of the soldiers - it's very intimidating when you see people with big guns ... walking around the red carpet. It's very difficult to do your job in a case like that where you can't walk around freely," says Sam Mkokeli, chairman of the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF).

Among the channels covering the story was the SABC, which since, Zuma took office in 2009, has grown more and more state-controlled.

Positive coverage

Journalists there say that, during the 2014 elections, they were told that 70 percent of their coverage of the government had to be positive.

Two years later, during local elections, the use of any video of violent protests was reportedly banned - on the orders of executives loyal to Zuma's ruling African National Congress.

The SABC story has some familiar aspects - a ruling party interfering with a public broadcaster. What makes it unique, however, is the SABC's odd relationship with private media outlets owned by the Guptas, a wealthy family with close ties to Zuma.

Take the morning after the state of the nation address, for example. The SABC aired a 100-minute special called the Business Briefing, an event organised by the Guptas' New Age newspaper.

The SABC produced the programme and aired it, but all the commercial revenues went to the Guptas, whose media outlets are in competition with the SABC - an arrangement that confounds some of the public broadcaster's own journalists.

"The relationship between the New Age, which is owned by the Guptas, and the SABC is a long-standing controversy. It's a commercial relationship, but it obviously is also an ideological relationship - it's the president's friends basically, accused or alleged to be feeding off state-owned enterprises like the SABC," says Thandeka Gqubule, economic editor, SABC.

'Most worrying aspect'

The Gupta family benefits financially from these briefings, but "the most worrying aspect is that the president has virtually cut off contact with the rest of the media community, and only focuses on the Gupta-owned media organisations", says Ranjeni Munusamy, associate editor at the Daily Maverick.

"There's a great deal of evidence from SABC journalists who've spoken out and say they have been very, very greatly intimidated by the leadership in the corporation, and even by people in government who have told them directly: Don't antagonise the president or don't write about this. Don't broadcast about that. And so there were plenty of reasons for him [Zuma] to feel intimidated," notes John Matisonn, author of God, Lies & Spies.

However, not all SABC journalists can be intimidated. A group of them, called the SABC 8, took their complaints about the network's loss of independence to South Africa's Constitutional Court, a process that led to a parliamentary committee holding hearings on the state of the publicly owned broadcaster.

They were called the SABC 8 because eight people were fired and three or four of them came to the ad hoc committee and spoke out very forcefully.

"We marched on the Constitutional Court demanding that the kind of broadcaster envisaged during South Africa's negotiated settlement be restored and that we return to the mandate which advocates that South Africa will have, and should have a public broadcaster that is upright, well regarded and a national treasure for all, not for a few," says Gqubule.

"In the midst of this crisis, we were dismissed, fired, reinstated, bullied and we received death threats. We wrote to parliament to say, 'Please hear us out. We are telling you that the Broadcasting Act lies in shambles. It's a mandate betrayed.' So the Parliamentary Committee [is] going to decide on what the way forward is for South Africa's public broadcaster."


Sam Mkokeli, chairman of The South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF)
Ranjeni Munusamy, associate editor, Daily Maverick
Thandeka Gqubule, journalist, SABC News
John Matisonn, author, God, Spies and Lies

Source: Al Jazeera