CASH-STRAPPED SABC News is facing a staff revolt and the prospect of further scrutiny from Parliament's portfolio committee over concerns that the quality of the equipment being used to produce news bulletins may be old or out of date, writes Edwin Naidu in the Sunday Independent.

And news readers Thembisa Marele and Isabelle de Taisser are both off air and are considering taking the broadcaster to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) after they refused to sign new contracts in December which reduced their income by as much as 60 percent.

Enerst Dlamini, the acting general secretary of the Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa), confirmed the union was representing the newsreaders and said they had sought a meeting with Solly Mokoetle, the new group chief executive, to raise concerns about the cutbacks in spending by the news department. "We are concerned about the cutbacks and also the fact that people are being used as scab labour in the news department," he said.

Several news readers have also complained about the effects of financial cutbacks on them. Marele and de Taisser have been off air since December. The acting news boss Phil Molefe has come under fire for allegedly using freelancers to read the news, including the prime time 7pm bulletins, for free as an opportunity to prove themselves on air.

The budget for the news department has been slashed by R670 million to about R570mThe budget for the news department has been slashed by R670 million to about R570m, but Kaizer Kganyago, the SABC's head of group communications, said the news budget has been revised during the course of the financial year as a result of the financial difficulties facing the SABC but he would not reveal the amounts involved, saying it would give the competition an advantage.

Traditionally, the 7pm bulletin has had more viewers than in the same time slot, but in the past two years the national broadcaster has lagged behind the free-to-air channel. news is watched by 1.3 million viewers compared with about 700 000 who tune into the news on SABC3. According to the television industry website, last month the most watched news bulletin was the Zulu News on SABC1 with 2.6 million viewers, followed by the Xhosa News (SABC1) with 2.4 million viewers, and Afrikaans News on SABC2 with 1.2 million viewers. Last month lost 100 000 viewers dropping to almost 1.2 million while Sesotho/Tswana/Sepedi News on SABC2 had 830 000 viewers, over 100 000 more than the news on SABC3.

Kganyago said cutbacks had occurred throughout the corporation, not only in the news department, as a requirement of the R1.4 billion bailout by the government. He said the SABC did not declare or pay bonuses to any of its employees in the current financial year and the corporation was aware of the two readers who chose not to make themselves available for selection as news readers in terms of the new contracts.

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