State poised to wield advertising axe

Three of the country’s top newspapers are going to be punished for “insulting” President Jacob Zuma. A threat to starve the Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian and City Press of millions of rands in advertising will soon be implemented by the government.

A formal instruction to carry out the plan is likely to come out as soon as the Cabinet holds its lekgotla in January, said a government official with close links to the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

The three papers have allegedly been sustaining “an anti-ANC and anti-government onslaught” on the “democratic state”, a second senior government official close to the ANC leadership told the M&G this week. This is according to a media analysis done by the ANC, the official said.

The biggest beneficiary of the switch in advertising will be the Independent Newspapers group that has, under Iqbal Survé’s ownership, cozied up to the ANC government, according to the government source. The plan, which was dusted off at last month’s ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting, will force the party’s deployees in government to spring into action and “centralise” its advertising spend.

The GCIS, which falls under the department of communications, will now run the government’s entire advertising budget, which is estimated at R1-billion if all government departments across the country are combined.

Advertising consolidation
The head of the ANC’s communications subcommittee, Lindiwe Zulu, confirmed the government’s plans to consolidate its advertising.

“Yes, it [advertising] will be centralised,” she said. “The communications department should be the one overseeing all government communications. It’s a normal thing to do.”

Zulu said a key concern that is raised is the continued negative coverage about the government by mainstream media.

“How do you continue to pay people who insult you? What’s that? Something needs to give,” she said. “We know there is freedom of the press. We are not saying people should only write positive things about the government, but you should be balanced.”

The ANC-led government is said to have listed reasons such as “unfair and biased reporting” and “insulting the president” for wanting to withhold advertising from certain mainstream media outlets.

The ANC and the government have accused most newspapers of practices such as “ignoring white capital corruption, painting the black government as incompetent and corrupt, and ignoring private sector corruption and scandals of the opposition and instead focusing on the ANC”, said a government official who has been involved in the plans.

No direct advertising
No government department is allowed to advertise directly with the media from now on, said the official, but “only through GCIS, to ensure things [advertisements] go where they should”.

The same government official said the decision from the party’s NEC meeting was communicated to all departments, and that one NEC member added that even provinces are expected to centralise advertising.

Although ANC NEC members the M&G spoke to denied there had been a decision to direct more advertising to the Survé-owned newspapers, the government official said the “Independent Group will be the main beneficiary” of centralised advertising.

Survé, through his chief of staff, Zenariah Barends, denied this.

“Your questions are devoid of fact, speculative at best and defamatory at worst. We regard this as a perfect example of spurious journalism.”

“It is once again another attempt by your publication to taint the image and reputation of our company, designed to impact our position in the market.”

No instructions
The acting director general of communications, Donald Liphoko, told the M&G this week that his department has received no instructions to withhold advertising from certain media organisations. He confirmed, however, that the GCIS has been tasked with “consolidating the advertising media buying programme of government”. This, he said, is meant to “strengthen the ability to negotiate and add additional value”, as well as “negotiating better prices”.

Another reason for the stricter control of government advertising is a concern that smaller community newspapers are not getting an adequate slice of the cake, Zulu said.

“Small businesses need to be empowered; otherwise, black businesses will never get a portion of the pie if we don’t act,” she said. “It is incorrect that when we are in the battle of ideas, information only comes through a one-way street.”

Iqbal Survé. (David Harrison, M&G)

Zulu said, although the Media Development and Diversity Agency – an agency for promoting media development and diversity – provides some assistance to community newspapers, more needs to be done to ensure their sustainability.

An ANC NEC member said Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande told the committee’s meeting last month that newspapers are “biting the hand that feeds them”.

The NEC member said the committee meeting was generally in agreement on the matter.

“We cannot induce [encourage] sensation and extremism as well as a counter-revolutionary onslaught on the democratic state,” said the NEC member, who is also a government leader in one of the provinces.

‘Hand of the enemy’
The NEC member said the meeting’s decision was “a reminder to sensitise departments to say: ‘Don’t strengthen the hand of the enemy.'”

This is not the first time the government has threatened to withhold advertising for media houses perceived as being too negative towards the state. Former GCIS boss Jimmy Manyi led this plan in 2011, but it soon died down. At the time, Manyi said the Cabinet had approved a state communications plan to reward media that reported positively on the government’s work.

“If the press takes offence, it shows all they are interested in is government money,” said Manyi at the time.

A GCIS-linked government official said the current administration has revisited advertising decisions taken by previous Cabinets and questioned why they were not implemented –hence the rush to get the new plan up and running.

“My suspicion is that when they come back from the Cabinet lekgotla in January, they will communicate in detail to us,” the official said.

Cost saving
The ANC-led government began threatening an advert drought from as early as the Thabo Mbeki administration. Then-minister in the presidency Essop Pahad threatened the Sunday Times after the paper reported that former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang had ordered people to bring her alcohol while she was in hospital for a shoulder operation and after receiving a liver transplant. It was, however, the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference that put a stamp on the plans. But the government delayed implementation because there was no legislation to enforce it. Zuma’s administration, however, has appointed an interministerial committee to speed this up.

Liphoko said cost saving is another reason for centralising state advertising, after the treasury called on government to manage its finances better. Currently, different departments or spheres of government are doubling up on spending for similar campaigns, he said. “Every municipality, provincial and national department wants to place an advert for the Mandela commemoration. We end up spending millions to sell one campaign.”

A report by the industry’s print and digital media transformation task team revealed that, in the 2011-2012 financial year, the GCIS spent R206.1-million on radio, television and print advertising, of which R182.1-million went to mainstream media. In the following financial year, the GCIS spent R219.4-million and once again the mainstream media received the lion’s share of R181.7-million. – Additional reporting by Qaanitah Hunter

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Mmanaledi Mataboge
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Matuma Letsoala
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