THE Labour Court hearing into the dismissal of four SABC journalists got under way on Friday, with their counsel arguing that having conceded that its ban on the broadcast of violent protests was unlawful, it was “cynical” and “patently unlawful’ for the broadcaster not to retain those staffers who had all along criticised the decision.
Foeta Krige, Suna Venter, Krivani Pillay and Jacques Steenkamp — four of the seven reporters that were summarily fired by the public broadcaster on Monday and Tuesday — went urgently to the Labour Court demanding reinstatement, saying their dismissal breached their employment contracts and was unconstitutional.
Their counsel, Steven Budlender, said: “The suspensions and charges have no basis in law. It is scarcely conceivable that our law contemplates employees being suspended and disciplined for criticising a policy, which is in fact invalid.”
He said the SABC’s conduct towards them amounted to bullying and intimidation and was sending a message to the other reporters at the public broadcaster: “If you cross the line, you will be out in the cold too”.
Budlender said their contracts of employment were very clear that a formal hearing was a must before they could be dismissed. On that basis alone, the dismissals were unlawful and the court could order them to be reinstated.
But on top of that, the dismissals (as well as their earlier suspensions and disciplinary charges) were unconstitutional, he said.
Journalists had ethical and constitutional obligations to present the news fairly and truthfully. The “SABC 8” were in a position where they “could not do both” — they could not abide by their ethical and constitutional duties and, at the same time, abide by the ban.
Referring to an earlier judgment of the Constitutional Court, Budlender said it did not matter whether their criticism of the ban was voiced internally or publicly. It was “unquestionable” that the journalists had the right and, arguably, even a duty to call the public’s attention to the ban.
It could not be constitutionally permissible for them to be fired for exercising their constitutional rights, he said.
Counsel for the SABC, Themba Skosana SC, said the journalists had breached the terms and conditions of their contract when they criticised the ban to the outside media and then did not respond when they were charged by the SABC.
It was not their internal criticism of the ban that got them into trouble, he said. “They have breached their contracts and have therefore committed acts of misconduct,” he said.
Skosana said: “If they had put up those representations, maybe we would not be here today. But their attitude was different; they said ‘no, we are not answerable to you’.”
In their letter responding to the charges, the journalists said they denied all the allegations against them, but — since they were taking the case to court — it would not be appropriate for them to respond more fully.
Skosana said their employment contracts made room for summary dismissal. There was no breach of their employment contract, he said.
But Budlender said that to read the contracts in the way that would allow for summary dismissal was “simply not coherent”.
Judge Robert Lagrange said he would try give judgment on Monday morning.