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Hands Across the Sea — Linthicum’s Letter for August 2013

By Tom Linthicum

The number of 24-hour news channels on South African television tripled in August – from one to three – leaving many observers wondering why. As always in this country, the answer seems to revolve around politics, power and money.

South Africa has been served by an independent all-news channel since June 2008. It was known as the eNews Channel until August 2012, when it was rebranded eNews Channel Africa (eNCA) as it prepared to go online.

The channel offers a rather typical mix of news, sports, weather, business and entertainment along with what seems to be the obligatory roster of current affairs programming. According to its website, eNCA has bureaus throughout South Africa as well as in Lagos, Nairobi and Beijing. It also has correspondents in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Tanzania.

The news channel’s reports at times have criticized the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s semi-public broadcaster, for being too close to the nation’s ruling political party, the African National Congress (ANC), and President Jacob Zuma. Such criticism is not appreciated by the ANC power structure, especially with elections looming next year.

And so the SABC entered 24-hour news competition on Aug. 1. It was actually its second foray into the field. The first attempt, SABC News International, was scrapped in April 2010.
Despite accusations of its close ties to the ANC, SABC’s move did not have universal government support. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan sharply criticized the idea, saying “this is not the time for vanity projects.”

Nevertheless, the broadcaster plunged ahead. SABC is actually planning to launch two new channels -- one for news and one for entertainment – raising questions as to how the cash-strapped broadcaster can pull this off. In 2009, the SABC was given a $100 million government-guaranteed loan to help it survive a financial crisis. Meanwhile, the SABC board has been in disarray. It voted in March to remove the acting chief operations officer, who has championed the all-news channel. But he is still in office and sealed the deal.

If anyone seemed happy with the presence of the new SABC entry, it was President Zuma, who allowed himself to be the first person to be interviewed on the channel. Zuma encouraged the channel to focus its coverage not only on crime and corruption but also on the progress being achieved in Africa.

"I hope this channel will change the attitude and make South Africans proud of what they have been able to achieve on their own. In short, the true South African story is waiting to be told,” said Zuma.

Rival political parties howled in outrage, branding Zuma’s remarks as nothing more than a campaign speech.

While that pot continues to simmer, the third all-news TV channel, Africa News Network, launched on the night of Aug. 21 amid glitter and some technical glitches.
There is no question about the financial resources of this entry. The company’s investors include members of the Gupta family, well-heeled and well-connected Indian business operatives with close ties to Zuma. How close? Well, one of their business partners is Zuma’s son. And yes, this is the same family that made headlines here not long ago when a private plane full of guests for a family wedding was allowed to land at a South African air base. The Guptas also own The New Age, a newspaper seen widely as sympathetic to Zuma.
An official of the company that owns the new station described its focus as “constructive nation-building stories in the interest of building a culture of unity and pride in South Africa.”

Hmmm. Doesn’t exactly sound like 60 Minutes, does it?

With plenty of money to lure big names, the Gupta channel has already lined up some well-known anchors and talk show hosts. But as of last week, it apparently was scrambling to build a news staff. Another news organization reported that Gupta TV, as it is often called here, was still seeking newsroom personnel with ads saying, "knowledge of camera and video editing will be an added advantage.”

Amid all of this drama, Zuma and the ANC are getting two more favorable TV news outlets just in time for the run-up to next year’s elections.

Coincidence? I think not.

Best to all.
Tom Linthicum
You can write to Tom at lthomas155@aol.com.

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