Govt is lobbying media executives and using its advertising muscle to win its battle for a more supine press.

South Africa’s government is lobbying media executives and using its advertising muscle to win its battle for a more supine press.

A management fight at Hosken Consolidated Investments Ltd. revealed that a cabinet minister and a company director tried to influence coverage at its channel, the nation’s biggest private television station that has reported on corruption and graft allegations leveled against President Jacob Zuma.

The government already controls the South African Broadcasting Corp., which has three local television channels and 20 radio stations. Its advertising provides the main source of revenue for the New Age, a newspaper that reports “the positive side of news,” and 24-hour news channel ANN7, which says it provides “constructive, nation-building stories.” Both outlets are owned by companies controlled by the members of the Gupta family who are friends with Zuma and employ his son.

“They’re using state power and resources to try and give support to a more sympathetic and less critical media,” Anton Harber, a journalism professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, said by phone on Nov. 4. “It means a decrease in public debate and accountability.”

Political interference is compounding pressure on South African media already contending with cutbacks in advertising and editorial budgets, according to Herman Wasserman, a professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town.

‘Increased Impatience’

“There is decreased tolerance and increased impatience with the media,” he said by phone on Oct. 31. “The future for newsrooms is quite bleak.”

The ruling African National Congress’ spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, described allegations that the ANC is trying to co-opt the media or influence editorial content as “baseless.”

“We have always respected the independence of the media,” he said by phone from Johannesburg. “There is nowhere in the world that has freedom of speech and freedom of the press like in South Africa.”

Naspers Ltd., Africa’s largest media company by market value, and Times Media Group Ltd., publisher of The Sunday Times and Business Day newspapers, appear to have retained their independence and carry reports critical of the government.

Naspers Chairman Ton Vosloo says the government is stepping up pressure on the media.

‘Big Brother’

“The ANC does not like a free and independently owned press with its watchdog capabilities,” he said Nov. 5 in a speech to the Cape Town Press Club. “There is something ominous at the continuous sniping at the free press. The government and the ANC through its so-called national democratic revolution wants total control a la Big Brother.”

Hosken founder Marcel Golding said he was axed as chairman of the investment company last month because of his opposition to political meddling at Hosken said the channel signed a contract with the state to provide coverage of its infrastructure development programs.

Hosken Chief Executive Officer Johnny Copelyn maintained at the company’s annual general meeting on Oct. 30 that he and his executives never sought to infringe on’s editorial independence.

While Hosken executive director Yunis Shaik, whose brother was Zuma’s financial adviser, did relay a request by Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel’s for to report on the opening of the dam to the station’s head of news, the approach didn’t constitute a major policy breach, Copelyn said.

Gaming Licenses

Bronwyn Keene-Young, who quit as’s chief operating officer last month, said Copelyn told Hosken directors the broadcaster’s news coverage could hamper the company’s efforts to secure gaming licenses and had to be “reined in.”

“There is a growing and very concerning trend that the current government and the ruling party are definitely trying to control the story in ways that are very problematic,” Harry Dugmore, a journalism professor at Rhodes University in the southeastern town of Grahamstown, said by phone on Nov. 4. “Any kind of government pressure on the media is worrisome.”

Staff at Independent Newspapers, which owns 18 titles, have complained of management interference in the editorial process since the company was acquired last year by a group led by Sekunjalo Investments Ltd. Several editors have resigned.

Sekunjalo founder Iqbal Surve, who resigned yesterday as executive chairman, said in a Dec. 13 column that while he has close links with the ANC, he’s not using the Independent to do the bidding of the party or the government.

Free Press

Karima Brown, the Independent’s group executive editor, didn’t answer her mobile phone or respond to messages seeking comment.

“A free and vibrant media is an integral part of our democracy and essential to build an open and inclusive information society,” Communications Minister Faith Muthambi said in an e-mailed response to questions. The “government will continue to allow for editorial independence.”

Owners and management of South African media houses must resist government pressure, said Mpumelelo Mkhabela, chairman of the South African National Editors’ Forum.

“The temptation will always be there for shareholders, especially those who don’t appreciate the value of journalistic independence to their businesses, to try to influence news coverage,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions. “It could be suicidal to the media owners themselves.”

Source: 2014 Bloomberg News – Mike Cohen and Franz Wild