The Labour Court on Tuesday lambasted the SABC for its “reckless disregard” for pending court applications and ordered that the public broadcaster be held liable for the legal costs of the four journalists who were granted an interdict against their dismissals.
Judge Andre van Niekerk delivered the judgement on behalf of Judge Robert LeGrange on Tuesday.
The four – Foeta Krige, Suna Venter, Krivani Pillay and Jacques Steenkamp – represented by trade union Solidarity, sought an order as to legal costs and also wanted the broadcaster to reveal the names of the officials involved in dismissing them.
“The reason for this unusual prayer is that even if it cannot be shown that the SABC proceeded with the dismissals in a wilful attempt to avert possible consequence of the Constitutional Court application and this one, whoever took the decision to dismiss the applicants did so with reckless regard for the pending applications and arguably if a more considered, reflective and financially accountable approach was taken, the SABC would not have proceeded with the dismissals or persisted in opposing the application after agreeing to the order with the Helen Suzman Foundation,” Van Niekerk said.
The dismissals, which stemmed from unlawful disciplinary processes were “authorised with reckless disregard” for the pending applications, costs and benefits to the SABC, he said.
“I am satisfied that there is no question that the applicants should not bear the costs of bringing this application. That this should occur during a time of financial crisis makes it more worrying.
The only question is whether these costs should be levied on those who took the decision [to dismiss the four] or on the SABC as an entity.”
Newly appointed acting head of news, Simon Tebele, came under fire for playing an “active role” in the events.
“I think it is appropriate that the person who appears to have authorised the dismissals when signing the dismissal letters should be given an opportunity to explain why he should not be held liable, at least in part, for the costs. The same applies to Tebele who seems to have played an active role in the events.”
Tebele and general manager for radio news and current affairs, Sebolelo Ditlhakane, were ordered to file affidavits within five days and explain why they should not be held personally liable for the legal costs.
The journalists filed an urgent application last week to have their dismissals for objecting to the now discarded censorship move introduced a few weeks ago by the SABC, which prohibited the broadcasting of violent footage in which state property was destroyed, set aside.
The controversial decision to suspend and dismiss the journalists drew widespread outcry from civil society and political parties. Last month, the governing African National Congress condemned the SABC for its decision to stop showing footage of destruction of property during violent protests, and said the policy went against its mandate as the country’s public broadcaster.
Several other senior SABC journalists, who include Thandeka Gcubule, Busisiwe Ntuli and Lukhanyo Calata, were sent termination letters by the public broadcaster last week for speaking out against censorship at the SABC.
Vuyo Mvoko’s contract was not renewed by the SABC because he publicly criticised the ban on the broadcasting of violent protests. Mvoko has reportedly approached the high court to ask it to set aside the termination of his contract. Mvoko is not a permanent employee at the broadcaster.
In court papers served on the SABC on Thursday, Mvoko argued that the public broadcaster violated the independent contract agreement he had with them.
The journalists had earlier in July approached the Constitutional Court for direct access to argue to have the ban on airing footage of violence reversed.
Last week, the SABC made a U-turn and said it would reverse its decision not to show violent protest footage in a case brought before the North Gauteng High Court court by the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF).
The public broadcaster negotiated and reached a settlement with the HSF in court.
The SABC also agreed to implement the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa ruling ordering it to reverse its unilateral ban on the broadcast of footage of violent protests. – African News Agency