Part 1 of a 3 part discussion with award winning journalist Paula Slier whose reporting from the Middle East was banned by the SABC. For the background to this interview click onto Zikalala Must Go.
IAS: How long has this problem in the SABC been going on regarding your reports? The commissions report seems to indicate that it started during the month where Arafat died. But how long have your reports been refused by the SABC?
Paula Slier: My first problem with him arose when I was working as a news-reader and writer for SABC AFRICA, SABC’s 24-hour news channel broadcast on DSTV. I was told he was unhappy with my news reading because of my English pronunciation! Later when I joined SABC news as a reporter, I was the only journalist to double up as the late evening news-reader and every month he had to sign my news-reading contract so that I could be paid for the previous month’s work. Without fail, he delayed signing and it was always as if he was doing me a favour.
I was extremely angry when he took me off the SA Human Rights Commission investigation into racism in the media (2000). I had covered the story from the beginning – producing numerous news stories in the run up to the commission’s hearings. Late the night before it began, I was told I would no longer be on the story. No explanation was given. I sensed it was because he feared he would not get the report he wanted.
It was also extremely difficult and uncomfortable to work in the newsroom under him. During his time a lot of experienced and excellent journalists left – for many of us whom he did not like, for whatever reasons, he made life unbearable. It was often questionable how it was decided which journalists would cover which stories, especially when it came to the political stories and overseas trips.
IAS: Could you elaborate on how it all started? Was there a specific report you produced that was the so called “tipping point” that led the SABC to take this stance against you?
Paula Slier: The report that was the so-called “tipping” point was what happened when I went to Ramallah to cover former PLO chairman Yassir Arafat’s death. But I want to emphasise that I think this was merely one hook that Zikalala could use to blacklist me. I think if it hadn’t been this story, he would’ve used another opportunity to do it. I’ve no doubt he did not want me reporting for SABC and his reasons had nothing to do with journalistic integrity or professionalism.
It was November 2004 and the rumours were rife that Arafat was dying. I was in Johannesburg at the time. As a contracted freelancer to the SABC, I offered to travel to Ramallah at my own expense and asked if they would use me if I was there. I was given an unequivocal yes. I subsequently report from there for almost a week, doing interviews for SABC radio and SABC AFRICA. When news broke by one of his spokesmen one evening that he had died I was outside Arafat’s headquarters at the Mukata. Sky and Al Jazeera were reporting the statement. I phoned into the SABC newsroom, which was in the middle of its 7pm broadcast, and the editor agreed to do a live phone interview with me. However, later in the evening Arafat’s doctors in Paris held a press conference saying he was still alive. There was a tremendous amount of confusion but my report was in line with numerous other broadcasters and reflected the information we were being given on the ground. Later when I phoned in to file a follow-up I was told that SABC would no longer be using my services. No explanation was given. There had been no complaints about my work before then – and none were ever directed my way afterwards.
A senior person in the SABC hierarchy admitted to me that the reason was because Snuki did not want “a white Jewish girl reporting from Ramallah.”
He advised me to find another media outlet to work for as soon as possible. 702 radio took me on immediately – I offered my services to news editor Katy Katapodis and within thirty seconds was hired. She said she didn’t think she’d ever hired someone so quickly! As it happened the next morning it was (again) formally announced that Arafat had died. I reported live on the story for two days for 702 while SABC had no-one covering the story for them. They had to use Reuters agency pictures.
IAS: Zikalala commented in the evidence taken by the commission that “from the movement where I come from we support the PLO. But she supported what’s happening in Israel. And then I said to them, Paula Slier, we cannot use her on the Middle East issue because we know where she stands. We need somebody who’s impartial.” How worried should we be that our public broadcaster is so strongly associated with the Palestinians?
Paula Slier: What I found both astounding and extremely distressing is that Zikalala implicates himself through his own admissions. He admits bias by saying he is a blatant PLO supporter (“from the movement where I come from we support the PLO”) and then carries on to say, “we need somebody impartial”. Does he really believe that someone who is a PLO supporter is impartial? Would I have had to be a card-carrying member of the movement to be perceived by him as being “impartial”? It’s absolutely ludicrous.
I think it is worrying that our public broadcaster is so strongly associated with the Palestinian struggle, but I think it would be as worrying if it was strongly associated with the actions of the State of Israel. The role of the SABC is to be impartial, to broadcast news as freely and objectively as is can, and to be vigilant about covering both sides of the conflict.
This, believe me, is not always easy, particularly regarding something as charged as the Middle East situation, but it is certainly not the role of Zikalala to start prescribing what view the public broadcaster should take re: the conflict.