The South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is by far the most influential and dominant news source in South Africa.

Any political party (or faction of a political party) who gains control of the SABC would be able to manipulate public opinion through the SABC. In such circumstances it would be impossible to conduct a free and fair election. It is therefore surprising that the judgment handed down last week, in which the High Court struck down efforts by the government to interfere in the management of the SABC, did not attract more attention.

In a capitalist state without a well-functioning public broadcaster, the right to freedom of expression and to free and fair elections will remain an empty and unreachable promise. As the Constitutional Court noted in Khumalo and Others v Holomisa:

The print, broadcast and electronic media have a particular role in the protection of freedom of expression in our society. Every citizen has the right to freedom of the press and the media and the right to receive information and ideas. The media are key agents in ensuring that these aspects of the right to freedom of information are respected. The ability of each citizen to be a responsible and effective member of our society depends upon the manner in which the media carry out their constitutional mandate.

Last week the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court in the case of S.O.S. Support Public Broadcasting Coalition and Others v South African Broadcasting Corporation and Others confirmed the importance of the SABC in fulfilling this role. In a ringing judgment (written by Matojane J) the court held that the right of everyone to freedom of expression and the right to vote (read with the Broadcasting Act and the SABC Charter) means the SABC is required “to ensure that members of the public have access to accurate, neutral and pluralistic information”.

The SABC must also provide “coverage of significant news and public affairs programming which meets the highest standards of journalism, as well as fair and unbiased coverage, impartiality, balance and independence from government, commercial and other interests”. Moreover:

The SABC as a public service broadcaster must promote alternative views to encourage debate that is vital to the functioning of democracy. A Healthy democracy requires that the public be able to discuss, share and receive information relating to political, social and cultural matters affecting their lives. The public broadcaster plays a crucial role in strengthening democracy and democratic governance by ensuring that the general public, in particular, those with neither political nor economic influence or power, have access to a broad spectrum of views on issues of public concern.

The judgment also confirms that the SABC performs a watchdog function “by investigating and reporting on the maladministration, abuses of power and corruption as these are matters of [public interest”

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