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The ANC has come out in defence of The New Age newspaper, which the DA claims gets 77 percent of its advertising revenue from the government and has received at least R64 million in two years.
DA leader, Helen Zille, has also written a letter to President Jacob Zuma asking him to set up a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate government spending on the newspaper.
Zille said The New Age was “almost entirely funded” by the ANC government at national and provincial level.
She said this was happening despite the fact that it had no audited circulation figures.
Over the past six months, her party had been piecing together information to verify how The New Age was funded, said Zille.
“The picture that emerges is alarming. The New Age has received at least R64.6m from the government in the form of advertising revenue and ‘sponsorships’ since December 2010 – and these are only those payments we know about,” Zille said.
She said the parallels with the apartheid-era “Infogate” scandal were “inescapable”.
“The Information scandal, also known as ‘Infogate’, in the late 1970s, involved the covert channelling of public funds to the Citizen newspaper to subsidise a more government-friendly English-language newspaper,” said Zille.
She said offices and institutions of state-owned enterprises served as distribution networks for The New Age “to boost its circulation figures, which the newspaper will not submit for audit”.
Unlike other mainstream newspapers, The New Age is not audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which verifies the number of copies a newspaper sells.
“We believe that the information we have collected so far represents more than sufficient evidence to warrant a full judicial commission of inquiry into the government’s funding of The New Age,” said Zille.
But the ANC hit back, saying the party was encouraged and “fully supports” The New Age and SABC breakfast sessions “in providing an unmediated and uncensored platform for public engagement by the government”.
ANC spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, said The New Age and SABC initiative had been unfairly and “deliberately distorted to suggest that it was a funding model exclusive to the New Age”, saying the government also advertised in other titles.
“It is important to note that organisations like (the) DA have also used the same platform to communicate with the public. This is inherent in any democracy that the government at all levels and its entities should use available platforms to account to the public it serves,” said Mthembu.
He said the ANC also took exception to the allegation that Zille had been “peddling” that The New Age was a conduit to raise money for the ANC since its owners, the Guptas, were benefactors of the party and President Jacob Zuma.
“If Helen Zille was to be taken serious (sic) and honest she should have called for an investigation of all government expenditure in advertising using all media. There has been no underhand or secret sponsorship for the TNA/SABC breakfast sessions, nor has there been secret ads by government departments (in The New Age). These were openly reported on in the South African Parliament. It is only a deranged mind that can refer to the breakfast initiative and ad spend (on The New Age) as ‘Infogate’,” said Mthembu.
SA National Editors’ Forum council member, Raymond Louw, said there were similarities between the Information scandal of the 1970s and the New Age situation, but these were not exactly the same.
He added that it was perfectly fine for other media to report on the government spending patterns on The New Age.
“It is worthy for other newspapers to explore. The media has been doing similar kinds of stories of all questionable deals in the past. The Sunday Express and the Rand Daily Mail both launched intensive investigations (into the information scandal),” said Louw.
He said it would make more sense for Zille to call on the auditor-general to probe The New Age matter and not a judicial commission.
The Western Cape ANC, which has also been at war with Zille and labelled her a “hypocrite” for pulling out of this month’s New Age business briefing, said her latest move was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Western Cape secretary, Songezo Mjongile, said Zille was “trying to clear her conscience”.
“But the facts remain. This is also a clear attack on The New Age. Government places advertisements in any newspaper,” said Mjongile.
DA funding allegations
The DA says millions of rand in state funds have been spent on The New Age since its establishment.
* At least R27 million was spent by the government on advertising in The New Age in less than two years;
* At least R37m has been spent by government departments and state-owned entities on sponsorships;
* The New Age has received at least R64.6m from the government in the form of advertising revenue and “sponsorships” since December 2010.
* The ANC government at national and provincial levels accounts for 77 percent of The New Age’s advertising revenue stream alone.
* At the rate of R1m per business breakfast that other state-owned entities paid, the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) sponsorship could have made another R8m in payments to The New Age.