JUST two years after the SABC opened its much-celebrated bureaus across the world, the broadcaster announced yesterday that it would be closing another five of its international news bureaus, writes Kashiefa Ajam in the Saturday Star.

The cash-strapped public broadcaster said it was also scaling down its much-vaunted news operations in key African and international countries.

The bureaus to be completely closed are Beijing, Dakar in Senegal, Brussels, Sao Paulo in Brazil, and one of two offices in New York.

The affected staff have been either recalled to South Africa or deployed into the five bureaus that remain.

'All we are doing is deferring some programmes'
This comes after the SABC closed three bureaus – in Jamaica, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Washington DC in April.

Its correspondents from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK and at the United Nations in New York will continue, but under constant evaluation to ensure they run cost efficiently.

Last week, the Saturday Star reported that the SABC was not signing any new local-content deals next year.

Independent producers and actors, who protested outside the SABC offices in Joburg last week, said the move would severely cripple an industry that employs more than 80 000 people.

The Television Industry Emergency Coalition – consisting of the Independent Producers' Organisation, the South African Screen Federation, the Producers' Alliance, the Documentary Filmmakers' Association, the Writers' Guild of South Africa and the Creative Workers' Union – said the SABC turn-around plan appeared to be to cut local content – to save R500-million.

'… we will make sure that the value in terms of the mandate justifies the costs involved'
But SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo said reports that the broadcaster planned to cut local content to the tune of R500-million next year were not true. "All we are doing is deferring some programmes," she said.

On Friday, the SABC's interim chairperson, Irene Charnley, said the decision to close the bureaus had been taken after careful consideration of the SABC's mandate and the need to bring the broadcaster's costs in line with its revenue.

"The process of closing these bureaus has begun today (Friday)," she said, "and all closures will be fully completed by the end of December. In making this decision, we have carefully weighed up the costs involved in keeping each of the bureaus open – and whether these expenses can be justified in terms of the SABC's legislative mandate.

"In those countries where we will continue to operate, we will make sure that the value in terms of the mandate justifies the costs involved. In line with this we have, for example, decided to recall camera operators in these countries and will rely on freelancers to provide these services. Correspondents in countries will further be expected to cover a region, rather than just news from the city they are located in."

Charnley added that in the process of evaluating each of the bureaus and the costs involved in running these, it became evident that the SABC's strategy adopted to deliver news from around the world from an African perspective did not match the approved budget – resulting in ongoing overexpenditure by the news and current affairs department.

The approved budget for the bureaus for this financial year is just under R37m. If, however, the news bureaus had continued, it is projected that spending for the year would have been R60m. With the closures – including the costs related to shutting these down – the SABC will save a minimum of just over R7m this year.

The major benefit however, said Charnley, would be felt in the next financial year, when this revision of strategy would result in savings of at least R32.5m.

Click here to read the full report, posted on iol.co.za.