JOHANNESBURG – A South African newspaper debuted Monday with denials it is an agent of the governing African National Congress.
There has been wide speculation in the country The New Age would be a government mouthpiece amid debate in South Africa about what are seen as attempts by the ANC to control the news.
The owners of The New Age are members of the Gupta family, which has mining, computer and other businesses in South Africa and India and is seen as close to President Jacob Zuma.
"We accept that we have made the news instead of writing the news over the past few months," editor Henry Jeffreys said in a front-page note to readers Monday.
"Despite what has been said about us, we hold no brief for any political party or formation," the editor said.
Elsewhere on the front page, the slim broadsheet with a crisp layout explored the travails of a man who says he helped police catch a serial killer but has waited a decade for a promised reward. Another story reported on a meningitis outbreak in Gauteng province, South Africa's economic hub.
In an inside editorial, Jeffreys addressed the heated debate over whether media freedoms are threatened by the ANC. He said he opposes the governing party's proposed secrets law that could jail reporters for publishing classified information, as well as plans by the ANC to create a tribunal controlled by politicians with as yet undefined powers to punish journalists for infractions that also are unclear.
"We are fortunate in South Africa to have freedom of expression and freedom of the media constitutionally entrenched in our legal system," Jeffreys wrote. "The New Age will vigorously oppose any attempt to curtail or undermine these rights."
ANC leaders have denied they want to muzzle the press, while accusing journalists of being sloppy and biased and complaining that newspapers remain largely in white hands 16 years after the end of white rule.
The ANC has in turn been accused of using its control of state TV and radio — which have a broader reach in the country than do private media — in much the same way the apartheid government did, as a propaganda tool to further its interests.
Last month, following media reports that it would direct the bulk of its advertising cash to The New Age, the government issued a statement saying it had no plan to support "any individual media organization — The New Age or any other."
The New Age was to have appeared in September, but struggled with logistical problems as well as accusations it would have a pro-government bias. Problems included a walkout of senior editors in October, apparently over whether journalists could meet the launch deadline set by the publisher. Jeffreys was named editor Oct. 28.
Being close to the ANC is no guarantee of success. An investment company headed by Nelson Mandela's doctor, Nthato Motlana, took over the leftist New Nation newspaper in 1993; the paper was closed down in 1997.
South African newspapers, like their counterparts around the world, were struggling to stay in business even before the global recession further decreased advertising revenues. Several South African newspapers have shut down in recent years, some within months of being launched. Others have sharply cut staff.
Michael Schmidt, executive director of South Africa's independent Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, said readers and advertisers may be skeptical of The New Age after the string of newspaper failures.
Schmidt added that the efforts to distance the paper from the ANC in its inaugural edition show editors' concern that readers won't see The New Age as credible. But Schmidt said the paper's ability to connect with readers — so far untested — could be more important than any conclusions drawn about its political leanings.
"I don't have the horror that a lot of other journalists might have at the notion of a politically aligned newspaper," he said. "The greater diversity of voices out there, the better."
The New Age says it can stand out from others in a crowded market by having a more national perspective and offering more news of interest to readers in rural areas.