On the face of it the memorandum from the SABC's head of public service radio, Judi Nwokedi, to station managers on "political discourse" is damning.
It points to political jostling in the run-up to the 2004 election and adds: "One case in point is the current Zuma matter. I am therefore instructing all stations to categorically ensure that all programmes, content, and talkshows that may vie in the direction of political discourse be avoided absolutely."
The memorandum adds that SABC chief executive officer Peter Matlare had made the decision, there would be "no exception to the rule", and if staff take issue "make it very clear that they should do that which they are employed to do and that our news and current affairs divisions will ensure coverage on matters that are political".
And in an NB (nota bene) it says: "This instruction to you as station manager is in no way to be photocopied, stuck up on walls or on noticeboards. You are to communicate and manage this request personally."
Matlare responded yesterday by saying the memorandum had been misunderstood and was in fact designed to ensure that editorial independence, accountability and fairness were promoted as the elections approached.
If that is indeed so then Nwokedi's memorandum is highly misleading. The reference to the Zuma affair will send one message to the SABC's senior managers, the instruction on how to deal with staff who may take issue will send a second, and the extraordinary NB on how to communicate the memorandum will send a third - and all could be interpreted as sinister. Attempting to confine political discourse to news and current affairs programmes will also inflame concerns that such coverage is to be controlled in the interests of particular agendas.
All of which sounds depressingly like the SABC of old. We can only hope, therefore, that Matlare is right and that the public broadcaster will give South Africans the breadth and depth of coverage and opinions that will serve democracy, not starve it.
With acknowledgement to the Cape Times.