The Free State government’s control over information in the province appears to be growing with the recent takeover of the province’s only independent English-language newspaper by a company seen as having close ties to Premier Ace Magashule and his senior officials.
The Mail & Guardian has learned that controversial communications company Letlaka Media has bought a majority stake in the Free State Times, a subsidiary of Africa Media Holdings, owned by veteran Zimbabwean journalist Basildon Peta. The paper was perceived as a robust critic of Magashule and his government.
Letlaka Media, owned by former Free State government official turned businessperson Tumi Ntsele, was behind the consortium that won a tender valued at about R48-million to develop an integrated website system for the province.
Ntsele also owns The Weekly, a Free State newspaper widely seen as a mouthpiece for Magashule and his administration.
In a written response to the M&G’s questions, Peta confirmed that Africa Media Holdings was “seized in a process that will result in a consortium led by Letlaka Media becoming majority equity holders in the Free State Times”.
He said the deal was a business transaction and would not impinge upon the paper’s editorial independence, but declined to give details of the new shareholding.
However, in early March, The Weekly announced that Letlaka Media had acquired a majority stake in the Free State Times.
The M&G was told that the group would take a 70% stake.
Sources close to the Free State Times, who spoke anonymously to the M&G, claimed this week that Magashule’s government, while pouring money into advertising for The Weekly, had withheld advertising from the Free State Times following a series of negative articles about the premier.
Another informed source said that it was unclear whether there was a “policy or directive” within the provincial government not to advertise with the Free State Times, but there had been concern about this.
“Because of the way it was reporting and because of its independence, there were indications that the state was not going to advertise and it is a big advertiser in provincial papers,” the source said.
“The paper wrote a couple of stories about the premier and he was obviously very unhappy.”
Chewed up by ‘the machine’
Free State journalists, who did not want to be named because of possible consequences for their work in the province, expressed concern that Ntsele and Magashule had created a “much bigger propaganda machine”.
One noted that the buyout of the Free State Times was a serious threat to the independence of the media. “You can’t start a newspaper in the Free State without the support of provincial government,” the source said.
But Peta denied the deal was influenced by “any pressure from the Free State government’s lack of advertising” and was merely a commercial transaction.
“We did not establish the newspaper with the sole intention of garnering advertising support from the provincial government, neither have we entered into a deal with Letlaka to do the same.”
A source with insight into the Free State Times said that it was in desperate need of a cash injection and “had to sell a stake to an individual”. The deal meant that it “would have to tone down” its reporting on the provincial government.
Peta denied this, saying that both parties had agreed that the editorial policy of the Free State Times would not be affected by this transaction.
“Africa Media Holdings can never be part to any deal that does not guarantee editorial independence in any of its subsidiaries. It’s wrong to suggest that the Free State Times had an ‘anti-Magashule’ stance. The newspaper has never been pro- or anti-Magashule and was not established with that in mind. It is an independent publication whose motto is ‘telling it like it is’.”
Peta also said that the deal was not motivated by the newspaper’s financial position. As it was relatively new in the market, it had struggled to draw advertising revenue from both the public and private sectors.
“The current tough market conditions have also affected our bottom line, especially given rising printing, operational and staff costs. This is not unique to the Free State Times.”
In early March, the Sowetan revealed that the Ntsele consortium was awarded a controversial website tender despite claims that the government had received cheaper bids from two other companies.
The contract was signed off in 2011 by former director general Elzabe Rockman, since promoted to provincial finance MEC.
The Democratic Alliance in the province also claimed that The Weekly had benefited from a constant stream of income from provincial government advertising contracts said to be worth millions.
Last week, Patricia Kopane, the DA’s Free State leader, alleged that Magashule was “using government marketing contracts to channel millions in public funds” to Letlaka.Kopane said that, in exchange for this enrichment, the Letlaka Group was “selling the premier’s image to the public during a time of service delivery collapse in the Free State”.
City Press reported last week that a forensic investigation into the province’s communications spending, instigated by the treasury, found that The Weekly was “funded almost exclusively by the provincial government”.
However, Sphiwe Mboyane, The Weekly’s editor, this week vehemently denied that his newspaper was “driving government propaganda”.
Describing it as a pro-development publication, he said the claim that The Weekly was a government mouthpiece was “an agenda driven by people who are intolerant of having a plurality of voices in the South African media”.
Mboyane said The Weekly had no agreement with the government regarding the placing of adverts. “It receives adverts from the media bulk-buying company just like any other newspaper, including your newspaper.”
Free State government spokesperson Wisani wa ka Ngobeni said the government had the right to place advertisements where it chose, based on such factors as audience and local empowerment.
“Why are you focusing on the Free State Times and not other newspapers where we haven’t advertised?” he asked.
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