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Media capture: slogan or reality?

TITUS MBUYA
In this second and final installment of a two-part series, Titus Mbuya dispels the myth of a media industry purportedly captured by corporate interests, and shows how international donors set the agenda for the media organizations that they fund.

Last week, we showed how Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism (INK) and the local weekly newspaper, Sunday Standard, are sponsored by CIA-linked organizations to undermine this country’s sovereignty and its national institutions.

In a self-righteous way, the Sunday Standard and  INK, have been using the adjective “capture” as a suffix to just about every noun that they use in their text lately to discredit those they do not agree with.

Needless to say the phrases “state capture “ and “corporate capture” were popularized by members of the ANC-led tripartite alliance in South Africa earlier this year amid allegations that the billionaire Gupta family was so influential and overbearing in that country’s affairs that they even appointed cabinet ministers.

The South African Communist Party (SACP), in particular, has been at the forefront of the campaign against state capture. They see the Guptas as representing “the emergence of a parasitic bourgeousie” which seeks to entrench itself within key sectors of the state and particularly within strategic state owned corporations, something which the Party says poses an existential threat to the national democratic revolution for which they fought so hard.

One should hasten to say, corporate capture of the state is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. As the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) secretary general, Irvin Jim says, “It was not the corrupt Guptas who initially captured the state but those in the Stock Exchange faction of wealth – white monopoly capital – who have been and remain the dominant power behind and within the government.”

According to Jim the capture began with the negotiated settlement in 1994, the neoliberal Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) programme in 1996, as well as the current National Development Plan, all of which entrenched the power of monopoly capital and globalization.

What makes “corporate capture” of the state a burning issue in South Africa right now should be understood in the context of the succession race in the ANC ahead of the 2017 elective congress. The SACP, whose star was on the rise in terms of its influence in the ANC since 2007 during the Polokwane Congress, finds itself on the sidelines as a new faction in the party led by the so called Premier League is on the ascendance. The Premier League, comprising Ace Magashule of the Free State, David Mabuza of Mpumalanga, and Supra Mahumapelo of North West province, are sponsored by the Guptas. The Premier League also enjoys the support of the leadership of the ANC Youth League, which is  in the pockets of the Guptas as well. The SACP’s natural ally, COSATU, is vacillating in this contestation, and hence, the Party finds itself isolated and gradually losing grip on the levers of power. So, the outrage expressed by the SACP against corporate capture emanates from the fact that the Premier League, and the ANCYL leadership, all of who happen to be in the pockets of a wealthy family, might be the ones who decide who becomes the next president of the ANC, and by extension, the country.

My problem with the use of the phrase “corporate capture” in the local press, is that  those who have appropriated it here and inserted it into our discourse, use it to denigrate, disparage and malign their competitors. They use “capture” as a slogan or label, or worse still, an insult to silence others. Their conception of “capture” is not based on any objective analysis or theoretical foundation.

To appreciate the notion of “corporate capture” in the context of the media we would like to locate it within the specific tradition in media theory called political economy, since the word “capture” implies power relations. The political economy paradigm focuses on power relations that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption of resources.

Under different circumstances I could use yet another critical theory approach, Cultural Studies, to explain the same phenomenon, but I won’t because it rubbishes “capture” outright as it attaches a premium to agency, in terms of how consumers of media texts interact with them. I want to give the proponents of “capture” the benefit of the doubt, by using the political economy paradigm and prove that, on the balance, their argument lacks intellectual quality. It is a paralysis of analysis.

An underlying political economy proposition is that the economic and political control of the media determines the content and thus the ideological power of media. Central to this argument is the idea that the product or the content of the media may be shaped by corporate interests,i.e. interest of the owners. Political economy posits that media owners ensure that they appoint journalists who share the same ideologies as theirs into managerial position to sustain their interests and the interests of a particular class.

In media theory the notion of “capture” is normally used to refer to government relations with the media in terms of whether government owns various media channels as is the case in Botswana; or uses bribes to get favourable coverage, and or places restrictions on media freedom. In the local context capture can be explained in terms of  unfair competition from government owned media, for instance, regulation and the advertising ban. It is capture in the sense that private media space within which to operate is being curtailed.

Although this kind of capture is not common, a study done in Italy in 2009 shows evidence of “corporate capture” through advertising in the context of a free market media environment. It was found out that one newspaper coverage of a particular company correlated with the amount of advertising purchased in that newspaper by the company.

It is also true that owners can be overbearing in their dealings with their newsrooms to the point of interference. This trend is evident especially in the United States where rich, influence peddlers are buying media companies as a result of declining revenues of newspapers. The most recent example is the one relating to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Following his take over of the paper, there were reports of editors suddenly altering articles about his business dealings to put them in a more flattering light, or holding from publication articles about him altogether.

This is in stark contrast to Jeff Bezos (the Amazon founder) style who bought the influential Washington Post three years ago from the family that used to own it. The Post newsroom has praised Bezos for delivering badly needed resources while “staying out of the way of the journalism”. The same applies to John Henry, who bought the Boston Globe from the owners of the New York Times. Henry, who also owns Boston’s baseball franchise, Red Sox, has been praised by the Globe’s newsroom for not meddling, including in the Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox.

But there is also the case of former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who owns the giant television channel, Bloomberg News. When he seriously contemplated a run for president during the current cycle of elections in the US, Bloomberg News editors, steered their reporters away from coverage.

This tendency is not limited to “outsiders”. Media executives also do the same. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corporation, which owns Fox News, Wall Street Journal, and Sky, among others, has been at it for decades, and his influence over his news group has taken mythical status.

And long before Murdoch there was one William Randolph Hearst, who defined what it meant to be a media mogul. David Nasaw, the author of Hearst’s biography, “The Chief: The life of William Randolph Hearst”, says, “Hearst made abundantly clear – ‘This is my newspaper, these are my views, take it or leave it.’” According to Nasaw, “Hearst put his editorial (column) on the front page, with his picture, and he signed them, for God’s sake.” Hearst was an American newspaper publisher who built that country’s largest newspaper chain and whose methods profoundly influenced the history of American journalism.

It is also true that owners of media and media executives do not have to say anything to employees for them not to write about them or their business or political interests. Just their sheer existence can instill fear in employees to self-censor. But that is relative, in as much as journalists don’t write about each other, or as is usually the case media houses don’t write in a disparaging way about each other. That position is relative and it depends on the nature of the story.

In their study done in 2010, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro concluded that, “Owners exert an insignificant influence over ideological media bias of US newspapers. The bias instead mainly depends on the ideological leanings of their audiences.”

A multiplicity of media outlets, in the form of print, electronic, etc, and a healthy commercial motive are effective defenses against media capture. It is harder for a government to silence the media if it faces a large number of independent owners. This is even much more so if media ownership is independent of other interests, and the media companies themselves have a strong commercial motive to establish a reputation of credibility.

In conclusion, it is self-evident that as the value of information grows, people who can influence the mass media content face a growing temptation to manipulate it for their own benefit. However, it is also true that it does not follow that ownership adversely impacts on editorial independence. The legendary Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal with his colleague, Bob Woodward, said in 2013 when Bezos bought the Washington Post, “We need somebody with deep pockets to sustain great reporting”. The Watergate scandal led to the resignation of former American president Richard Nixon in 1974.

 

Media ownership in Botswana

The press in Botswana was founded by men and women with various interests and motives. While some invested in media for profit others were driven by the idealism of social justice and their desire to make a meaningful contribution to the country’s fledgling democracy.

Mmegi was founded by an educationist, Patrick Van Rensburg while The Gazette was founded by Alaudin Osman, who was a journalist. The Botswana Guardian was started by the late William Jones, a businessman with an accounting background. The Voice was started by a former teacher, Don Moore.

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And the Sunday Standard was founded by  journalists, namely, Outsa Mokone, Spencer Mogapi and Prof Malema.

Out of all the newspapers in Botswana Mmegi was the only one which started as a community-based project owned by a not-for-profit organization, first Foundation For Education with Production, and later, Mmegi Publishing Trust. The Voice, which started off as a school magazine called the Francistowner, was perhaps the closest to the Mmegi model.

The Sunday Standard made a lot of hue and cry recently following an announcement that Universal House, a company owned by property mogul Seyed Jamali has invested in Mmegi Investment Holdings. The newspaper characterised this development as corporate capture of the media.

The Sunday Standard is either being hypocritical or it is a case of selective amnesia. A significant proportion of the initial investment in the Sunday Standard was made by the late mining magnate, Louis G. Nchindo.

The Gazette, which is owned by the Olsen family, also has automobile dealership magnate, Satar Dada as a shareholder. The last time we checked he owned a 30% stake in the company that owns The Gazette. Dada is also the treasurer of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.

The Weekend Post was started among others, by former Member of Parliament businessman, Charles Tibone. When the newspaper was launched he owned over 65% of the company.

The Patriot on Sunday was started by, among others, Ram Ottapathu, of Choppies. His partners were Mpho Balopi and Guma Moyo, former secretary general of the BDP and Member of Parliament, respectively.

These papers, just like other newspapers in the country are a part of the vibrant media landscape of Botswana and they hold all sectors of the society accountable, without fear or favour. They are not captured! 

INKdependence: who is fooling who?

It is laughable, if not sad, that perhaps to prove that they cannot be influenced by anyone, INK’s tag-line (motto) is “Independence buys freedom”. In other words since they cannot be influenced by advertisers, because they operate like a news agency, they have the freedom to report without fear or favour. This sense of independence that they profess is a pipe dream! As a matter of fact INK is even in a worse situation than newspapers that rely on advertising revenue for survival.

A case in point, Ink’s big brother, the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), was cornered in April by the conservative cable television network, Fox News, regarding ICIJ’s concealment of the names of companies owned by their sponsor, George Soros, which  appeared in the Panama Papers. ICIJ is responsible for managing the dissemination of the contents of the Panama Papers.

When ICIJ leader, Gerard Ryle, was asked why they were hiding Soros’ name by not publishing it like that of other people mentioned in the Papers he said, he had not noticed Soro’s companies in the offshore database until Fox News called the matter to his attention! Fact of the matter is that ICIJ was covering up for Soros because he gives them money. He granted  ICIJ $1.5 million last year alone. On the other hand, INK did not see anything wrong with publishing the name of Court of Appeal President Justice Ian Kirby in a South African paper (Times) when there was nothing wrong cited in the Panama Papers that he had done.

At the instigation of foreign donors, INK and the Sunday Standard have subverted investigative journalism and turned it into a fear-mongering character assassination endeavor where every story is a corruption scandal.

 

How Sunday Standard lies about Botswana to foreign funders

Documentary evidence confirms that the Sunday Standard lied about Botswana to get money from a foreign sponsor in 2014. In the Portfolio Review of the New York-based Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), which bought the Sunday Standard a P27 million second-hand printing press in 2013, there is a damning entry about the newspaper regarding the last general elections held in 2014.

Under the title, “Elections Coverage”, the Review states: “Botswana is one of the most democratic nations in Africa, but intimidation of journalists and electoral corruption were reported in the weeks before voting in October. Sunday Standard identified key districts where voting was likely to be close and sent teams to report. Their presence was recognised as helping to prevent voter fraud”.

Of course this is a fabrication. It is a contrived story. To say journalists were “intimidated” during the build-up to the 2014 elections is a patent lie, let alone purporting that  “electoral corruption” was reported, and that the presence of Sunday Standard helped to “prevent voter fraud”!

It is not the responsibility of the Sunday Standard, or any other newspaper for that matter, to ensure that there is no voter fraud. That is the responsibility of the election monitors and the police. Journalists report on what they observe. They are not supposed to be participants in the process.

This is a classic example of a foreign donor acting in a condescending way to influence a partner to undermine their national institution, being the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The IEC is being projected as incompetent and corrupt.

This is not an isolated case, there is a pattern by the Open Society Foundation-funded media organizations, being the Sunday Standardand INK, to persistently denigrate, in a self-loathing and treacherous manner, their national institutions, both public and private.

Sunday Standard and INK are part of news media organizations on the continent, used by international donor organizations, and the CIA, to feed into the narrative based on the Eurocentric stereotype that says Africans cannot rule themselves without the supervision of Washington and London.

Little wonder that the claim made in the election story fits the MDIF’s criteria for financing. On its website the MDIF states that it “provides affordable financing and technical assistance to independent news and information businesses in challenging environments.”

It further states, “In many cases, we are the sole source of external financing for an independent media outlet; local banks and investors are often unknowledgeable of the media business, hostile to their mission, or unwilling to take on politically sensitive investments”.

In pursuance of their goal to assist media organizations in “challenging environments” the MDIF has a set of criteria that they use to assess the impact that their clients have on their respective societies for them to receive funding.

Under the subtopic, “Impact Assessment”, the MDIF’s Portfolio Review states, “To evaluate our clients’ impacts on corruption and accountability, we conducted a survey, asking our clients if they had (1) exposed a corruption scandal or (2) reported on whether government officials had followed through on their promises over the preceding year. For those clients that had reported on either corruption or government accountability, we asked them to describe their reporting and its impact.”

According to the Review, “Eighty seven percent of our (MDIF) clients exposed corruption scandals in their country. Through trenchant reporting, the media businesses MDIF supports uncovered sweetheart deals given to connected developers, extortion schemes organized by police, rigged food-inspection regimes and many other corrupt practices. Their reporting led to legal action and in many cases broader policy changes across government bureaucracies”.

This is what MDIF expects of its clients. They expect them to churn out corruption scandal stories whatever the circumstances. This places immense pressure on their clients because they have to prove to the paymaster that they are delivering. These criteria exert pressure on recipients of such funding to generate copy without any regard for quality.

As a result every story becomes a scandal whether the corruption is perceived or real. This is why INK and Sunday Standard recycle and rehash the same stories many times over, and at worst, manufacture them, to meet the criteria of their paymasters in Washington and New York so that they can be considered for more funding. Every story for them is a sales pitch. It can get them more money from their sponsors.

 

 Standard editors ‘eat’ Nchindo’s money

The shareholders of Sunday Standard, Outsa Mokone, Spencer Mogapi and Prof Malema, knocked the late Louis Nchindo off over P500,000, which is still outstanding from his investment in their paper. Mokone is the Editor of the Standard, Mogapi his deputy and Malema Buiness Editor.

Nchindo paid the money when the Sunday Standard was established just over a decade ago. He raised the money on behalf of the three shareholders as part of the contribution for them to access seed capital from the Debswana-owned company, Peo Venture Capital.

The first payment Nchindo made was for P289,000, which was paid to Peo. There was another payment for P140,000 that Nchindo made towards equity in the company, still on behalf of the three shareholders.

Nchindo insisted that the shareholders show commitment to the project by contributing P150,000 between the three of them. When they couldn’t he arranged for them to be introduced to Standard Chartered Bank where they were given personal loans of P50,000 each.

Nchindo also contributed additional money towards the working capital of the Sunday Standard, which was experiencing cash flow problems, including a P100,000 payment that was never properly accounted for because one of the three shareholders diverted it for personal use. The particular shareholder who took the money is alleged to have bought a herd of heifers with it. This incident caused a deep rift among the shareholders.

As it became more and more difficult for the trio to pay Nchindo back his money, they entered into an agreement with him for his  contribution to be converted into equity (shares), thus giving him a majority shareholding in the company. The agreement was drafted by Nchindo’s lawyers, Collins Newman & Company.

Later, when Nchindo wanted to take over the whole company because the other shareholders could not match the level of his investment, Mokone, Mogapi and Malema were bailed out by the late businessman, Moshe Lekaukau, who assisted them to get a loan from the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA).

The money raised from CEDA was used to pay off Peo Venture Capital, and that’s how the trio was able to wrestle the company away from Nchindo. However, the three shareholders still owe the late Nchindo the P500,000 plus, that he injected in the company on their behalf.

Nchindo was the former Managing Director of Debswana. He was instrumental in roping President Ian Khama into politics following the Debswana sponsored Schlemmer Report on BDP’s renewal.



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