Johannesburg - Former president Jacob Zuma played a major role in the establishment of the now-defunct ANN7 and even laid down editorial policy for the pro-ANC government news channel, former editor Rajesh Sundaram told the state capture commission of inquiry on Monday.
Zuma was the de facto editor-in-chief, holding meetings at his Pretoria residence in the run up to the launch of ANN7. So secret was Zuma's role that the Guptas forbade any of the team members from mentioning his name.
Sundaram said the former president was given a codename by the Guptas and was referred to as "Number 9."
"For discussions in team meetings where we had to make inputs and presentations with the senior management along with others, we were told by Atul Gupta not to mention the president by name. He said we should refer to him as 'Number 9'. So I said why Number 9? Why not Number 3 or Number 7 or Number 10?. Atul said Number 9 was the code that was given to Zuma in the ANC intelligence grouping during the apartheid years, and that was a codename that he would want to use in this case."
Sundaram said although Zuma's son Duduzane had a 21 percent shareholding in Infinity Media, he played no significant role in the establishment and running of the news channel. His father was hands-on, and held feedback meetings with management teams and the Guptas.
The first meeting between the ANN7 team led by Sundaram and Zuma took place at his official residence in Pretoria on a Sunday in June. He recollected the events from his tell-all book 'Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV' borne out of a diary he kept while in South Africa. He said he was surprised by the lax security. They had not been scanned by security.
"We were ushered to a room in the residence. I saw Ashu Chawla already sitting with his cellphone plugged in the wall socket to charge. It was the first time I met him personally. Moegsien Williams, Nazeem Howa, Atul came in a few minutes later. Atul was impatient and wanted the meeting started already...saying the president can't keep us waiting like that. We were told by Chawla that the president was in another room conducting meetings and will be in soon...he came in and sat after a few minutes. We found it a little funny that a head of state will have to attend to a new television station which had not been launched yet," said Sundaram.
Zuma asked detailed questions about the new television project and was given a report to go through before the next meeting. Following Atul's strict instructions, they told Zuma how the station would look, the name and logo and procurement of equipment. Zuma wanted to know how the news content would differ from what was already shown on other news channels in the country," Sundaram said.
"At previous meetings that I was not part of, the president had suggested a name like that of [international news channel] CNN. He suggested Africa News Network. The idea was to have an African news network where SA journalists reporting from across the world like CNN was doing. Atul told him it is called ANN7, and that 7 was added because 'ANN' was already taken somewhere else as brand."
However, Zuma was being played by the Guptas who made him feel as if they would implement his suggestions. The Guptas and Zuma even laughed about the Waterkloof incident in 2013 when their plane, filled with Indian guests, landed at the air force base in Pretoria, Sundaram testified.
"They said it was important that Zuma felt heard. Atul told me that I should make the president feel listened to when speaking to him. They seemed very close to the president, and when his relatives were around, they would greet them on a first-name basis. And also, the meetings took place after the Waterkloof [landing of Gupta plane filled with wedding guests in 2013], the relationship between them strengthened as there was nothing that indicated that the incident had any bearing on the relationship...they joked and laughed about Waterkloof...it was like nothing happened. They would have a hearty laugh about it," he told the Zondo-led commission.
"It was a game that I thought they were playing with the president and giving him an impression his views were taken seriously when in fact the Guptas would do whatever they wanted and throw Zuma's plans in the dustbin."
Atul later boasted to Sundaram about the family's close relationship with Zuma.
"See, I told you, the bond that we have with the president is deep... he will stand with us like a rock."
When certain television journalists refused to work for ANN7 due to the owners' damaged public image, the family approached Zuma. The former president suggested Jimmy Manyi as a good candidate, Sundaram testified.
Zuma did not want the channel to be perceived as an ANC propaganda machine. The channel would show opposition parties, but in a negative light.
"He said eNCA [news channel] only presented government and him negatively. He wanted the propaganda to be subtle in the news reports He said eNCA had too many repetitive programmes and found that boring. He was also against the lampooning of politicians by puppets [eNCA satire character Chester Missing] and criticised camera angles."
Sundaram said it became evident to him that despite his R100 000 monthly "fat salary", he was working for ''the mafia and a propaganda project." He testified that the Guptas didn't care about content and wanted the channel up and running fast to make money from government departments through advertising.
"They were in a hurry to set the station up and they wanted to start making profits as soon as possible. Really, the content, the look and feel of the station was secondary to the Guptas.
"It was a struggle setting up the station and dealing with Atul on my neck, putting tremendous pressure on the technical team to launch as fast as possible. Anchors were not professional anchors, just models. Young interns fresh from university worked long hours without complaining... the techical staff were all from India and did not speak English...Guptas didn't want to hire South African technicians as they said they were more expensive."
With the miscommunication between Indian technical staff and anchors, the launch was marred by bugs and mistakes, he said. Sundaram said he decided to leave after launching the channel, just months after his arrival in South Africa.
"It was the most depressing time of my career...I had never seen such a train wreck... terrible moments of my life. This was caused by pure greed from the Guptas."
Evidence leader Thandi Norman asked Sundaram: "Can I say as a South African that the ANN7's was reliable news?
Sundaram replied: "No. Most of the times editorial meetings were hijacked by Howa and Moegsien. They would direct that there be no coverage for a Democratic Alliance press conference... they pushed their philosophy from The New Age into ANN7. I registered my complaints regarding these behaviours. Howa was CEO, and said he was journalist before. I took it he knew South Africa better than me. I chose to get out of the way...there were very young hard working journalists and they were corrupted by the kind of views Moegsien gave in editorial meetings. I was frustrated."
African News Agency (ANA)