ANC accused of purging broadcasters

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SOUTH AFRICAN journalists are warning that a campaign is under way within the the country's public-service broadcaster to replace experienced and independent-minded professionals with managers sympathetic to the ruling African National Congress.

The latest high-profile casualty of the purge became publicly known yesterday: Barney Mthombothi, editor-in-chief of radio news at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, resigned after being passed over in changes to the SABC news hierarchy. He, in common with other experienced journalists who have been forced to resign or who have found their programmes axed, blamed incompetence and inexperience rather than direct interference.

"Some people within the SABC may want to please the ANC. The biggest danger facing the SABC is not political interference but lack of skills and lack of a culture or ethos of independent journalism,'' said Mr Mthombothi.

But a month before South Africa's second multi-race elections, in which the ANC is aiming for up to a two-thirds majority in parliament, some SABC insiders associate changes at the corporation with a one-party, no- dissent culture.

In common with other recent casualties, including the highly respected investigative journalist Max du Preez, Mr Mthombothi warned of a return to "the dark days of the old SABC'', when it was a propaganda arm for the apartheid regime. Yesterday a member of the editorial staff, who requested anonymity, said the pro-ANC culture was pervasive. "Their idea is to put a gloss on stories which favour the ANC. We might have a story about how 4m rand [pounds 400,000] has been spent on a project to build 95 houses but that, in reality, only 20 house have been built. In such a situation we will often be told we should turn around the script to highlight the 20 houses which have been built."

Many journalists at the SABC - relaunched in 1996 to shed its propagandist image - warn of inexperience in management and abuse of power.

"Unlike the press, there has never been a culture of independent broadcasting. There are no role models for independence and there is no clear distinction between the role of public broadcaster, government and the ANC,'' said one.

The purge began two years ago, when Joe Thloloe was removed as editor- in-chief of television news. He was followed last year by his former boss, Govin Reddy, who accused the SABC of racism.

Managers blamed staff cuts on the current trend for bi-media - combining radio and television newsrooms.

But the axing of Du Preez's high-profile Special Assignment last month sent shockwaves through the SABC. It was followed by the sacking of a respected anchor-woman, Sarah Crowe. "Since Max was sacked we all think `if they can do that to him, none of us has a chance if we stand up against them','' said a journalist.

r The South African police, under attack after disclosures that they use violence on suspects, paid tribute to 1,240 officers killed on duty in the past five years.

At a service yesterday in Pretoria the future president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, urged citizens to support the police force. "The men and women who have died are the protective shield, protecting our citizens and our society,'' said Mr Mbeki, who has been selected to take over as leader of the ANC when Nelson Mandela retires next month.

South African police are around three times as likely as civilians to be murdered. Their crime-fighting methods have come under scrutiny since a BBC Newsnight film showed white officers beating black suspects in Johannesburg.