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Cape Town - The ANC has come out guns blazing in defence of The New Age newspaper, which the DA claims gets 77 percent of its advertising revenue from the government – a total of at least R64 million in two years.
DA leader Helen Zille has also written 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 ANC governments at national and provincial levels.
This was happening despite the fact the newspaper had no audited circulation figures.
Her party has been piecing together information over the past six months 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 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.”
Zille 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 government”.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said The New Age and SABC initiative has 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 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 and honest (sic) 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 The New Age/SABC breakfast sessions nor has there been secret ads by government departments on (The New Age),” said Mthembu.
SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) council member Raymond Louw said 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 (into the information scandal).”
Louw said it would make more sense for Zille to call on the auditor-general to probe The New Age matter rather than 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.