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The Battle for Truth

Published Aug 11, 2023


FOR decades, foreign governments have covertly manipulated media landscapes to advance their agendas. South Africa, with its immense resources and newly minted democratic and hungry government, is no exception, writes Feroza Petersen

***Note: Some of the content in this article originated from a summary of the Black Agenda Report by Roscoe Palm and Ajit Singh, 17 August 2022.

The country also finds itself a prime target for machinations and the agenda setting sinister dance of manipulation and suppression, as it flirts with Western powers, those from the increasingly powerful BRICS alliance, as well as those from the Middle East.

Egged on by these foreign powers, in the bustling heart of South Africa's media landscape, a subtle but fierce battle for influence is unfolding between media giants News24, Daily Maverick, and amaBhungane, against the Independent Media conglomerate and the Sekunjalo Group.

But it’s not as simple as a cut and dried West vs perceived East scenario.

From the days of apartheid to the present, the CIA's involvement in shaping South African media narratives has been clear. Amid growing discussions about Russian and Chinese influence in the country, the longstanding American presence is often overlooked.

During apartheid, the US sponsorship of media outlets countered perceived Marxist campaigns. Operations facilitated by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which assumed covert political support tasks from the CIA, shows a shadowy web of manipulation that persisted beyond the Cold War.

Investigative efforts by Ajit Singh* and Roscoe Palm** have exposed how US funding penetrated media outlets, including the Daily Maverick, Times Media, amaBhungane, and News24. This corrosive influence has compromised media independence, leading to a distorted public discourse.

Per example, Khadija Patel, former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, exemplifies the complex web of media manipulation. Her departure from media outlets to chair the NED-sponsored International Press Institute and her role as head of programmes for the International Fund for Public Interest, underscores the blurred lines between media autonomy and external influence.

The ramifications of this manipulation has extended to the freedom of the press itself.

Organisations funded by the CIA and US private foundations wield enormous influence, affecting narratives and silencing dissent. As the interconnectedness of US influence continues to unfold, it has become clear that even seemingly independent organisations are not immune to external control.

Chris Roper, former editor-in-chief of the Daily Maverick, transitioned from the publication to become the deputy CEO of an Africa-focused data journalism initiative - the continent's largest federation of civic technology and data journalism labs, Code for Africa (CfA), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Omidyar Network - a philanthropic body founded by the founders of eBay - revealing the revolving door between media outlets and US government-sponsored entities.

Vinayak Bhardawaj, former advocacy coordinator at amaBhungane, followed a similar path by working for Africa Check, a partner of the US. embassy in South Africa. Karabo Rajuili, another former advocacy coordinator at amaBhungane, joined Open Ownership, a corporate watchdog founded by the UK government.

Speaking of amaBhungane, there’s possibly no coincidence that one of its founding partners, Sam Sole, is alleged to be a former South African intelligence officer.

Championing the Truth Amid Manipulation

The intertwining narratives of US manipulation, suppression, and the fight for truth paint a complex picture of South African media, and as foreign-funded media houses and the CIA's reach remain entrenched, it becomes paramount for journalists, citizens, and policymakers to demand transparency, accountability, and media autonomy, to shape the future we all want to live.

In the words of South African journalist Solani Ngobeni, "Journalism is about speaking truth to power and holding those in power accountable. We must stand strong against manipulation and outside influence to ensure our media remains a beacon of truth for the nation."

A recent case in point is the situation with the Sekunjalo Group of Companies and the country’s major banks, who have either closed or threatened closure of the various group company accounts, and how the media have treated this story.

Whilst most agree on the hypocrisy of the banks’ behaviour in this case, several commentators have also used the opportunity to remark on how Independent Media, one of the affected parties and the media house with the most diverse audience, also carries commentary from the East.

This is not a crime, as all South Africans deserve a balanced view of the world, yet the predominantly West driven narrative of Independent Media’s competitors denounces this broad stance.

The question is why, and why would they block this country’s citizens from getting a broad perspective? Why are they also preventing Independent Media from telling their side of the story as to what has gone down with the banks along with the evidence that is often ignored in reporting?

Independent Media has launched a campaign of its own. They have highlighted instances, backed up with evidence, where they believe News24, Daily Maverick, and amaBhungane have misconstrued facts and sensationalized stories.

Those of us who are mere readers, are pawns on a chessboard, considering how many of these claims are founded on truth, and how many are mere chess moves in a high-stakes media game?

We may never know the full truth, but what we do know is that the clash has exposed the vulnerabilities within the media landscape, raising important conversations about journalistic ethics, ownership, and the delicate balance between free speech and responsible reporting.

South Africa watches closely, reminded that even those who shine light on others can find themselves caught in the shadows of controversy.

* Ajit Singh is an investigative journalist with the No Cold War project. He is a contributing author to Keywords in Radical Philosophy and Education: Common Concepts for Contemporary Movements. His work has appeared in The Grayzone, Truthout, teleSUR English, NewsClick, and The Hampton Institute.

** Roscoe Palm is the co-founder of the Pan-African Institute for Socialism (PAIS).