anc eyes sowetan

Eric Naki

Eric Naki

The ANC has refuted news reports that it intends buying Sowetan , but media experts believe that "where there is smoke there is fire".

They also share a common view that this spells bad news for media independence.

Joe Latakgomo, former Sowetan editor, said it would be a "sad day" if a political party in government bought Sowetan.

"We are going back to the old days when the National Party and the Broederbond used to run the SABC and the Afrikaans newspapers as their propaganda tools.

"It will be tragic if the ANC wants to go the same route."

Latakgomo said the ANC should have learnt a lesson about this strategy from the former communist states, especially its failure in the then Soviet Union.

The propaganda dished out by the Herald and the media crackdown in Zimbabwe is another good example of a government's attempt to monopolise views.

Tawana Kupe, professor of media studies and humanities dean at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the ANC's idea to open a newspaper or buy Sowetan should be seen in two ways.

First as a contribution to diverse media ownership, but at the same time it would also have the negative consequences of reducing the crucial diversity of views.

"The ANC is a political party and therefore it is expected to push a particular viewpoint, something that will reduce the diversity of views. That's not what we want in a democracy.

"If they say their views are not reflected in the existing media, then the question to be asked is, is this the best way to achieve this?"

Kupe said the ANC ought to "sharpen the way it communicates with newspapers" so that its views are better reflected.

Thami Mazwai, a former publisher and an unashamed critic of some of the activities of the mainstream media, said he fully understood the ANC's position.

He said media diversity in South Africa is not yet a reality.

"But given the current economic climate and that the media are overtraded, one has to be very careful starting a project of this nature. Buying an existing newspaper has its own challenges. The fact that the ANC is a political party is going to alienate certain readers and advertisers. In that case we hope there is a five-year strategy to deal with any eventuality.

"You can't ignore these dynamics," Mazwai said.

Jane Duncan, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said if the ANC bought Sowetan it would spell "bad news" for the paper's editorial independence.

"It will compromise its editorial independence. It seems there is an agenda by the ANC to neutralise Avusa Media's newspapers. Is it because these newspapers are critical of the government and the ANC at times?"

She said that last year's expose by the Daily Dispatch of the high number of babies dying at Frere Hospital in East London, and a series of articles by Sunday Times on shenanigans involving Health Minister Manto Tshablalala-Msimang, could have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

The ANC might have seen this as an attack on it.

She said another dimension to the ANC's strategy in contemplating the purchase of Sowetan could be to neutralise and distance the paper from its perceived leaning towards black consciousness.

Many of the paper's old-guard staff were activists of Steve Biko's Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970 and 1980s.

"I think the ANC has an arrogant attitude thinking that it holds the monopoly on ideology."

But, if the plan went ahead and the ANC acquired Sowetan, the paper would have an unfair advantage over others because the party would ensure that the largest chunk of government adverts went to the paper.

"The deal will have a very serious impact on the advertising share of other newspapers and that will be unfair.

"There is nothing wrong with the ANC owning a newspaper, but that will not address many of the issues the ANC is concerned about in the existing commercial media."

Duncan said the ANC had changed from its 2002 Stellenbosch approach that it wanted to transform the media through diversity and more media access.

It was now concentrating on improving its own media image.

"The ANC media policy has lost its transformation focus. Since Polokwane it is concerned about its image," said Duncan.

The ANC - like all political parties - would be tempted to drive a particular line that would stifle the diversity of views.

Indeed, the move to set up a publication or purchase Sowetan comes against the backdrop of the ANC's resolution at its recent Polokwane national conference to introduce a media tribunal, to be appointed by parliament, to police the media in the country.

The discussion document in Sowetan's possession indicates that the ANC intends to get financing for its newspaper - aproject that would cost about R250million - and wants it to hit the streets before next year's elections.

Under "other options" in the document, the ANC proposes entering into a "tactical partnership with Mvelaphanda - which has a 30percent share in Avusa, owners of Sowetan - to "transform Sowetan".

Interestingly, the party says there would be no full control of the paper and was also concerned about Sowetan's "track record" while wanting to reduce the neo-liberal perspectives of Avusa's existing titles.

Sowetan has a history of association with the Black Consciousness Movement and Pan Africanism more than with the ANC or its 1980s offshoot, the United Democratic Front.

Towards the mid-2000s the paper moved from a serious focus on politics and economic issues to a more popular style with emphasis on human interest news.

While Sowetan management cited commercial consideration as the reason for the change, media academics attributed this to new competition from Media-24's Daily Sun, which targets low- income black readership.

The impetus behind the idea to set up the paper is the ANC's concern about press attitude towards the tripartite alliance and a post-2009 government.

This includes the media's perceived antagonism towards the Zuma camp's leftist influence and their horror at the outcome of the Polokwane leadership race. There are also qualms about the media's love affair with neo-liberalism.

The document says an alternative voice is needed by April next year. The party favours a mass-market daily that would cover the elections from the perspective of the ANC conference resolutions and what they will mean for ordinary South Africans. But the organisation is concerned about the fact that it would take at least eight months' pre-launch preparations.

Recently South African Communist Party general secretary, Blade Nzimande criticised City Press for fuelling factionalism in the party. Nzimande demanded that City Press's top management take action against the paper's editorial team for their anti-Jacob Zuma or pro-Thabo Mbeki stand.

Earlier Zuma also attacked the media for not transforming and for marginalising the poor.

The document, from Jessie Duarte to the party's NEC members serving in the communications subcommittee, was among the issues that were to have been discussed by the subcommittee recently .

Another issue on the table was the status of the SABC board, legislation relating thereto, and the way forward.

But the ANC has declined to reveal the outcome of this crucial meeting. In a statement last week, Duarte refuted the idea of buying Sowetan and described the report as "incorrect".

"The ANC has made no decisions about modalities for an ANC newspaper."

Duarte said the ANC, however, affirmed its right and reiterated its determination to establish its own newspaper, as agreed at the Polokwane conference.

Whether this represents hard times to come for the media will be clear when the new ANC government takes over the running of the country in mid-2009.