The movements of journalists working for The New Age newspaper were closely monitored by Atul Gupta, the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture heard on Monday.
Rajesh Sundaram, the former editor of the now defunct ANN7 news channel told the commission, chaired by Deputy Chief Raymond Zondo, that journalists at the newspaper were “micromanaged” — a modus operandi that was expected to continue at ANN7.
Sundaram said he was told that journalists’ toilet and cigarette breaks were monitored and the time they spent on assignments was scrutinised by Gupta, who had access to information relating to journalists’ whereabouts and movements through CCTV footage and by tracking their cell phones.
The New Age and ANN7 were both housed at the The New Age Media headquarters in Midrand.
On Monday, Sundaram recounted the events surrounding the launch of the Gupta-linked news channel in 2013. The launch, which Sundaram said was rushed by the Gupta brothers, got off to an infamously rocky start.
Sundaram has previously opened up about his experience at the helm of ANN7’s editorial team in his book Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV.
Sundaram’s evidence before the commission dealt with the seemingly flimsy editorial policy of the channel, which he alleged was guided by former president Jacob Zuma.
Though it was Zuma’s son Duduzane who was an ANN7 shareholder, his father was “more actively involved” in setting up the news station. Sundaram called the younger Zuma’s contribution “minimal”, but alleged that the former president was briefed on the day-to-day running of the station.
Sundaram alleged that Zuma’s involvement in ANN7 was to be kept under wraps. He said that Zuma was to be referred to by a codename: “Number 9”.
He further alleged that ANN7 did not have its own editorial policy, claiming that when he arrived to work at the station he was told that they would be following the editorial policy of The New Age.
“There was no position for an editor in this station. They just wanted a rubber stamp,” said Sundarum, who as editor would ordinarily have been closely involved in formulating the station’s editorial policy.
“It was more of a propaganda station that they wanted to set up,” Sundaram said, adding that Zuma wanted to ensure that ANN7 was not an “out and out” propaganda station.
According to Sundaram, Zuma was particularly interested in setting ANN7 apart from eNCA which he said portrayed “him and the government negatively”.
When probed by evidence leader Thandi Norman SC on the credibility of the news reported on ANN7, Sundaram said that the values of good journalism which reporters came in with was “corrupted”.
He alleged that ANN7 and The New Age chief executive Nazeem Howa would hijack editorial meetings.
Sundaram conceded that, as the editor, the buck ought to have stopped with him, saying that the part he had in setting up the station was the “biggest regret” of his life.
He said: “That was the most depressing time of my life … It was the saddest, saddest phase of my life.”
“So yes, I do regret the fact that I set up a station for the mafia, just to be used for propaganda,” Sundaram said.