Threat to Media Freedom in South Africa

Between Iqbal Survé, the Zuma government and the Chinese Communist Party, it is clear who now holds the whip hand in print journalism in South Africa. Its purpose is state...

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Cape Times China Africa Newspaper Media Freedom

Between Iqbal Survé, the Zuma government and the Chinese Communist Party, it is clear who now holds the whip hand in print journalism in South Africa. Its purpose is state political control of news and analysis.

Paul Trewhela Dictatorship and the threat to media freedom in South Africa 24/1/2014

You might perhaps be less familiar with the role of Independent Media, which is 20% owned by Chinese state-owned businesses, as a mouthpiece for the government of the People’s Republic of China. They’re the only media group in South Africa that uncritically publishes pieces by the Chinese ambassador to South Africa. For example, Independent titles will push stories denying the ongoing human rights abuses and genocide perpetrated by the government of China against the Uighur people, with titles like “‘Genocide’ tag against China is the lie of the century”.

Chris Roper News 24  18/6/2021

In 2014, Paul Trewhela, author of Inside Quatro, wrote a prescient article and I have used its headline here because I believe it is appropriate to do so.

Just how prescient became obvious on 1 July when the the Cape Times front page was a wrap-around devoted entirely to congratulating China on the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

The front page photograph showed Cyril Ramaphosa shaking hands with the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.

The main article on the front page was written by the Chinese ambassador in South Africa, Chen Xiaodong and, to confirm its provenance, the newspaper mentioned that it was ‘signed’.

It also contained a message from Iqbal Survé:

Sekunjalo Iqbal Surve Cape Times
Source: Provided by the Author.

Sekunjalo Independent Media was the only South African newspaper company to adopt this approach to an event which would be of little interest to the average South African who has more pressing local problems to worry about.

Never before in South Africa’s newspaper history has a company ceded its front pages to advertise a foreign political party, least of all to a party which denies media freedom to its own citizens.

Professor Anthony Butler, Professor of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town says the financial and commercial benefits of South Africa’s linkage with China are worth less than our trade partnership with the EU, the UK, India and Japan.

Despite this, Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers and his IOL website play a Bell Pottinger-type role on behalf of China.

It publishes what are, in effect, paid advertisements – called ‘Sponsored Content’ – articles of no relevance in the lives of the vast majority of the dwindling readership of these newspapers – see here and here and  here and here and here  and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here and here.

Its other Bell Pottinger-type tactic – as Chris Roper points out in one of the anchor quotes to this article – is to question the horrifying human rights abuses being perpetrated by China against the country’s Turkic-Muslim Uighur minority in the Xinjiang region, China’s largest producer of natural gas.

Iqbal Survé’s congratulatory message to China’s ambassador in South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, as illustrated above, contains the following words paying tribute to China’s ‘excellent vision of building a cohesive community which has as its core, a shared future for mankind’.

China’s de facto policy objectives make it clear that the words ‘cohesive community’ do not apply to Uighur people.

Modern day genocide

Great Britain, the United States and Canada, and the Netherlands  among others have described the Xi Jinping regime’s treatment of the Uighurs as a modern-day genocide.

In 2019 a cache of secret documents, now called the China Cables, was leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and has been shared with 17 media partners, including the BBC, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Irish Times and the US TV network, NBC.

They confirmed what had already been established by extensive satellite photographic coverage – China has built huge internment camps  to perpetrate against the Uighur Muslims what  has been called ‘The largest incarceration of a minority since the Holocaust’.

As one of Iqbal Survé’s former executives, Siphiwe Nodwele , testified at the Mpati Commission of Inquiry into improprieties at the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), he controls the news content of his newspapers – bought in part with pension money which he is refusing to repay – with an iron fist and one of the most egregious manifestations of this routine  negation of ethical journalism occurred in the context of the of the above-mentioned persecution by China of the Uighur Muslims.

Al Jazeera journalist, Azad Essa, wrote a regular column on international affairs for Sekunjalo Independent Media until he made the mistake of reporting on the unspeakably evil persecution by China of the Uighur Muslims.  Within hours of submitting the article, Essa was informed that no further articles would be accepted from him resulting in the entirely apposite headline World spotlight on Iqbal Survé for censoring anti-China news.

 Azad Essa’s article which ended his submissions to Iqbal Survé’s media outlets can be found here and his response can be found here.

 Fawning deference

Here is a description of Iqbal Survé’s fawning deference to his Chinese funders by two of his former editors, Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield, in their book, Paper Tiger –  see here and here and here.

Reporting on China, with which Survé had business interests, also became fraught. In 2014 the Nobel Peace Summit in Cape Town was boycotted by laureates because the South African government at the time buckled to Chinese pressure and would not give the Dalai Lama a visa to visit the country. The new Cape Times editors seemingly chose to censor Archbishop, Desmond Tutu’s attack on the government and ran a small story that ignored the central issues.

And critical pieces about the Chinese government were not welcomed, as Azad Essa, who wrote a foreign affairs column for the group, discovered. Essa focused a September 2018 column on the more than one million Uyghur Muslims held by the Chinese authorities in internment camps. He explained later that he was fully aware of the stakes held by China International Television Corporation and the China-Africa Development Fund in Independent Media and knew ‘that the column might ruffle feathers’.

The piece was published in print in Independent’s newspapers around the country. But when Essa asked when it would be published online, he was told by email that a decision had been taken not to publish it electronically. ‘When I asked for clarity from online editors, I received no response.

‘This morning my weekly column was cancelled. I was told the following: “With the redesign of our papers and the new system, there are changes regarding the columnists being used”

‘Is this the future of corporate censorship in SA?’ asked Essa.

Here’s the assessment of Zimbabwean journalist Tatenda Gwaambuka of this act of pro-China censorship of Azad Essa by Iqbal Survé:

Twenty percent of Independent Media is now held by two Chinese firms. To put it in context, the company is the second largest media company in South Africa and a fifth of it is Chinese owned. This gives the firms immense decision-making power in the company with the effect of becoming China’s ‘most ardent cheerleader’. True to expectations, Essa was shown to the door in a dramatic fashion. There were no apologies or explanations given apart from some impending “redesigning”. Chinese forays into African media have become more apparent as its propaganda machinery pushes a less odious picture of the country to counter Western demonisation. Africa finds itself a pawn in a game of thrones yet again, and Azad Essa can bear testimony of the fact.

I defy you to find a single equivalent instance in South African media history where a newspaper owner, financially beholden to state-supported funders in a foreign country, has deferred to that country and terminated the column of a journalist for writing a report critical of human rights abuses and oppression of minorities in the funding country.

Wilful distortion?

Shannon Ebrahim, as Sekunjalo’s foreign affairs columnist, cannot be unaware of the world-wide condemnation of China’s treatment of its Muslim citizens. Despite this she used the word Ubuntu in describing how China treats its citizens.

The Uighurs have not experienced Ubuntu  from their Chinese rulers -see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Was this simply inaccurate reporting or was it a wilful distortion of the facts by a company whose commitment to ethical journalism is questionable according to the former political editor of the Cape Times, Dougie Oakes and  others – see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here?

Despite the satellite photographs of China’s Uighur internment camps, despite the expressions of concern from the world’s leading democracies, the United Nations and Amnesty International and despite abundant video and interview evidence from the world’s leading investigative journalists and media companies, Iqbal Survé allowed his newspapers to publish an outright denial  of Uighur persecution by the autocratic Chinese regime as Chris Roper points out in one of the anchor quotes to this article.

What do South African Muslims think of this and do they still read or advertise in these newspapers?

Media freedom has never existed in China and it is now being snuffed out in Hong Kong with the closure of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily on 27 June. The Xi Jinping regime has imprisoned the newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, arrested five senior executives and frozen the newspaper’s assets.

‘China is buying Africa’s Media Silence’ was the headline on Azad Essa’s article in 2018.

Do the front pages of Iqbal Survé’s newspapers on 1 July not provide further proof of his contention?

Open letter

Disturbed by Iqbal Survé’s purge of ethical journalists and the way in which the newspapers he now owned had abandoned ethical journalism, Helen Zille wrote an open letter to him in 2015:

Conducted in parallel with the extremely dangerous phenomenon of “state capture”, the process of consolidating our democracy is endangered by “media capture” and the incremental obliteration of critical voices.

Iqbal Survé’s dismissal of Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele after that newspaper published an article critical of the Zuma faction, his termination of Azad Essa’s contract as a columnist and the unprecedented way in which the front pages of all his newspapers were effectively ceded to a foreign power inimical to press freedom on July 1 bring the  media freedom concerns of Paul Trewhela, Chris Roper and Helen Zille, into sharp focus.

Paul Trewhela wrote in 2014 of the collaboration between Survé, the Zuma government and China to control the media narrative in South Africa. When Zuma lost power and was forced to resign as State President, Survé switched from defending him to attacking his successor, the reformist and anti-corruption Cyril Ramaphosa – see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here  and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here and here and here.

There has been no indication that Iqbal Survé’s supporters are opposed to this orchestrated anti-CR17 campaign.

A further manifestation of Survé’s patriotism came when, testifying under oath at the Mpati Commission, he acknowledged that while he was refusing to repay the money lent to him by the PIC to buy the Independent titles – a default debt which, with accumulated interest, has ballooned to more than a billion rand – he was servicing the loans by his State-controlled Chinese funders.

His commitment to the cause of China has been acknowledged and rewarded.

These factors, in isolation and together – plus the fact that Sekunjalo Independent Media is technically insolvent and facing liquidation – might have contributed to the decision by ABSA and FNB, his auditors BDO, his lawyers Webber Wentzel and two of his most significant clients, Sasol  and the local branch of the global telecommunications group, BT (formerly British Telecoms) to cut their ties with companies linked to him.

The fear of reputational damage and financial loss are likely to have triggered these decisions and another contributory factor might have been the ‘Project Wave’ evidence   at the Zondo Commission that Survé’s African News Agency (ANA) had received a R20 million backhander from a security police slush fund – all organised by Arthur Fraser – so that public relations work could be done to promote the interests of the Zuma faction of the ANC.

All of this has come at a corporate and reputational cost – on July 1 the Cape Times, now selling less than 10 000 copies a day in a city of three and a half million people – see here and here – had only one full page advertisement, for a Survé-linked company called Loot Online.

According to Chris Whitfield this level of advertising means that few of the newspapers bought by Iqbal Survé in 2013 are likely to survive.

These factors have resulted in an unprecedented loss of talented and ethical news people and, in the past few months, environmental reporter Sheree Bega has left The Star and political reporter Emsie Ferreira has left ANA, both joining the Mail & Guardian.

If you were to see the front pages of the Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers on 1 July as another routine betrayal of the tenets of ethical journalism – as the fake news accounts of ten non-existent babies  which were started by one of his newspapers proves – would you find yourself in agreement with the sentiments expressed by Paul Trewhela in 2014?

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