Durban - From approving the company’s logo design to instructing who should be hired in the ANN7 newsroom, former President Jacob Zuma played a hands-on role in the creation and managing of the Gupta-family owned broadcaster, ANN7, claims former editor Rajesh Sundaram in his book released this week.
Sundaram was the broadcaster’s inaugural editor, brought from India to launch the 24-hour news channel in 2013.
Within weeks of his arrival in South Africa, he found himself briefing Zuma on the launch of news broadcasting agency with a name yet to be chosen at that time.
The name, African News Agency, was chosen by Zuma, Sundaram says, but the “7” had to be added on as the original name was already trademarked.
Sundaram says in the book that Atul Gupta told him that Zuma must be made to “feel important” and that he would like it if he was asked for suggestions on how to run the news channel and would see it as his “own channel”.
The book, Indentured: Behind the Scenes At Gupta TV, is published by Jacana Media. Sundaram details how in three meetings with Zuma, he found out how the former president called the shots in the operations of the news channel, how Zuma suggested that the current ANN7 owner, Jimmy Mzwanele Manyi, should host a talk show on the channel and how the agency secured government funding for its operations.
Sundaram said Manyi did not wow the interviewers and was not suited for the job.
“Jimmy failed miserably when he did his test interrogation with Atul on the Waterkloof issue. Nazeem (Howa, senior Gupta executive), the top editorial team, me and Atul himself knew he was stiff on camera and reluctant to ask tough questions.”
Last year, Manyi’s company Lodidox bought Gupta-owned news channel ANN7 (Infinity Media) for R300m and The New Age newspaper (TNA Media) for R150m.
Sundaram said Zuma dictated the content ANN7 should broadcast, saying the eNCA portrayed him (Zuma) and the government negatively and that ANN7 should be a pro-Zuma and pro-ANC broadcaster.
Sundaram writes in the book that Zuma did not want ANN7 to be a publicity channel for the ANC as that would lack credibility.
He said Zuma told him to also present opposition views, but favour the ANC.
He said Zuma said the 30% shareholding held by his son, Duduzane, in the ANN7 holding company was a family stake.
“In this scenario, I could see how he would use his position as president to ensure government advertising for the station. It also seemed, if this was the truth, that there was a clear conflict of interest - as his son had a stake in not just the Gupta-owned newspaper, but also the proposed television news channel.”
It was during a meeting with the Gupta brothers and Zuma in August 2013 that Sundaram said he first met Duduzane Zuma. He said Duduzane showed his father ANN7’s sample bulletins with visuals on how Zuma’s critics would be depicted.
According to Sundaram, during the meeting Ajay, speaking of Malema, said they only used a visual of him getting out of a helicopter as it made him look “corrupt”.
This allegation by Sundaram brings to light a recent battle between the broadcaster and ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu - a case Mthembu won after the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) ruled in his favour and fined the broadcaster R80 000.
Mthembu laid a formal complaint against ANN7 last year after a segment alleging that he “colluded” with the DA to schedule a debate on state capture in Parliament was aired. ANN7 was found to have breached the BCCSA code of conduct when it repeatedly aired the video clip defaming Mthembu.
Mthembu denied that he had colluded with the DA.
Before Atul and Sundaram had a fall-out which, among other reasons, led to him resigning, Sundaram said that Atul told him the history of the Gupta-Zuma relationship.
Sundaram alleges that Atul told him that the family had “supported him when no one cared” and had stood by him amid rape and corruption charges until he “came out victorious”.
Atul said they called Zuma “Rashtrapati Baba”. Rashtrapati is the Hindi word for “president”.
Reacting to the revelations made in the book, director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Neeshan Balton said: “If the book is true, it helps enrich our understanding of how the Guptas came to exercise influence on the government.”
Opposition parties said they would only comment after they had studied the book.
ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe declined to comment.
* About author Rajesh Sundaram
Sundaram is a seasoned journalist and broadcasting executive who claims he quit under a cloud of fear and acrimony. He fled back to India, saying his life had been threatened by Atul Gupta.
He has been a journalist for the past 23 years, with a degree in journalism from the University of Delhi. He has worked for top Indian and international media houses, including India Today Group, NDTV and Al Jazeera.
He has expertise in launching television news stations, with seven successful launches worldwide.
Sundaram lives in Chennai, India with his journalist wife Rashmi Sanyal and daughters Ananya and Ahana.
He was headhunted to launch ANN7 but resigned for various reasons, including the fact the station was strictly pro-ANC.
Shortly after his resignation, Sundaram’s hotel room was burgled and several items, including documents critical to his recently released book, were stolen.
In addition, ANN7 employees said the Guptas were abusive to staff, overworked them and underpaid them, according to Sundaram.
He also lifted the lid on how Gupta lieutenants found a way to expedite Indian nationals obtaining visas to work in South Africa. The solution entailed confirming that prospective employees in India were employed by Essel Media India, a company with close ties to the Guptas and a shareholder in Infinity Media.
They would request that these employees be granted expedited “inter-company transfer” visas, bypassing the arduous processes for making use of immigrant labour.