PROPOSALS to broaden ownership and control of South Africa's news media are under urgent consideration as the country moves closer to a transitional government and a national election.
The African National Congress (ANC) has committed itself to freedom of the press in an ANC Media Charter published Jan. 14. But the charter also calls for steps to ensure diversity of newspaper ownership and broader control of the state-run broadcasting. And the ANC wants to establish a system to monitor and regulate radio and television broadcasts prior to an election.
"It would be suicidal to go into an election with the present control system of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) intact," says Moeletsi Mbeki, a key member of a joint ANC-trade union committee that drafted the ANC's proposals. The SABC has maintained a stony silence on the proposals.
Most newspaper editorials have welcomed the ANC's commitment to press freedom, but expressed skepticism about the methods it proposes for correcting past imbalances.
"Honesty compels the admission that the newspaper industry has, willy-nilly, prospered in the apartheid era," says an editorial in The Star of Johannesburg Jan. 16. "The honorable thing to do is make amends - not by offering charity - but by making a real contribution, in skills and resources, to promoting diversity."
As the main propaganda organ of the ruling National Party for four decades, the SABC has broadened its coverage since the ANC was legalized two years ago, although its staff and control structures have remained intact.
A landmark report on broadcasting recommended last year that control of radio and television be deregulated and placed under an Independent Broadcasting Authority. The ANC has rejected the report on grounds that the investigation was unrepresentative, operated in secret, and amounted to "privatization" of a public asset. Monitoring broadcasts
The ANC calls for creation of a multiparty committee to oversee monitoring of the broadcasting services during the transition. It also wants a more representative SABC board (which is still white-dominated) and an ombudsman to monitor impartiality.
A working committee of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, which sits for the first time Feb. 6, is to draft proposals to ensure neutrality of the state-run broadcasting services.
"There can be no doubt that the SABC has been grossly abused by the National Party," says Stephen Mulholland, chief executive of Times Media Limited (TML) publishing group.
TML - like the other main English-language newspaper group, Argus Newspapers - is controlled by the mining conglomerate Anglo American, through the mining house Johannesburg Consolidated Investments (JCI) and a web of cross-holdings that includes a 38 percent stake by Argus in TML.
The ANC Media Charter calls for steps to be taken to break what it calls the monopoly of the English-language press. Newspaper executives concede the present ownership of newspapers is unbalanced, but they are wary of any intervention by a future government.
"Our major shareholders - Anglo American and JCI - have made it clear that they do not regard continued ownership of the Argus and TML as a sacred cow," says Argus Newspapers chief executive Douglas Band. "There is a recognition that when an acceptable proposal is made it [change of ownership] can be done." Avoiding nationalization
But Mr. Band warns it is a delicate matter that must both ensure financial viability and prevent political control. TML's Mulholland recently tried to help resolve the problem by organizing a management buyout of TML by the staff. "It did not succeed," he says.
For about the past nine months TML executives have been talking to Canadian newspaper magnate Conrad Black, owner of the Daily Telegraph of London, about a possible deal.
One former executive, who asked not to be named, says an overseas takeover would offer the best insurance against possible nationalization of the press by a future ANC government.
"If we sell to a major company in Europe or North America there will be an international [outcry] if the ANC tries to nationalize, and its image would be badly dented."
Executives interviewed by the Monitor would not comment on the Black deal but several conceded intense negotiations were under way.
"I don't think I'm fully in the picture on this one," says Mr. Mulholland. "But I can say that there has been more than one overseas person involved."
Remarking on a recent discussion of media issues with ANC President Nelson Mandela, Mulholland says: "There is a case to be made for reducing concentration of ownership in white hands," but says, "I think it would be counterproductive if the government of the day dictated who should own newspapers."
Mulholland says he is skeptical of the ANC's professed commitment to freedom of expression when it uses terms like "democratization of the media."
Press freedom, he says, should be guaranteed in a new constitution by a provision similar to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.