Media Barons Swoop In To Boost S. African Press

Foreign media barons searching for new markets have moved their battle for subscribers to South Africa, shopping for bargains and shaking up stale news organizations.

No one will deny there is a need to inject fresh ideas and international quality into South Africa's media industry, struggling to redefine itself after being cowed for decades by apartheid-era censorship and sapped by an exodus of journalists in the 1980s.

But the new initiatives are prompting fears that foreign control could endanger editorial independence.

Supporters of the initiatives say they now can produce an improved end-product with more international spin on content and style. They note that local businessmen have largely held back from investing in the media, a reluctance that is partly an aftereffect of media harassment under apartheid. It may also stem from concern that the current government will try to curb freedom of expression in the future.

But detractors worry locals could lose a say, swallowed up by their new foreign bosses. ''There is a vacuum created here in the media. It's inevitable someone from overseas would come in. Is this a good thing for South Africa? I don't think so, but what is the alternative?,'' asks Raymond Louw of the Freedom of Expression Institute of South Africa.

In just over a year, Britain's The Guardian has gained 71 percent of the Weekly Mail, the former leading apartheid critic based in Johannesburg, which is now renamed The Weekly Mail and Guardian (WMG). And Dublin-based media mogul Tony O'Reilly has obtained 58 percent of the Independent Newspaper Holdings, which owns newspapers nationwide and was once made up the large Argus group. And Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born international media czar just signed a deal giving him broadcasting rights for South African rugby.

The entrance on the scene of Mr. O'Reilly - who owns The Independent in Ireland, has a large holding in Britain's The Independent, and has stakes in several Australian newspapers - has sparked concern that the formerly powerful Argus group will now be driven by profit rather than quality.

But Deon du Plessis - managing director for Independent Newspaper Holdings in Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg - says editorial independence has not been affected. He adds that new ventures, such as a a Sunday edition, would not have been possible without outside help.

''The old Argus, it had run out of ideas. The kick start was given by the foreigners. They jazzed it up with new ideas and initiatives which people had wanted to carry out for a while,'' he said. ''Obviously there's a possibility that the foreign holding could turn out to be detrimental. But so far it's been for the good.''

But the greatest controversy has been generated by Mr. Murdoch's jumping into the electronic fray. Last month he caught South African broadcasters unawares by purchasing the television rights to Southern Hemisphere rugby.

Allowing foreigners to control broadcasting of national sports events is emotional for the patriotic and progressive alike. Concerns were articulated by none other than the WMG, which published a scathing editorial last week headlined: ''We stopped Lomu, can we stop Murdoch?''

It lamented that South Africans were too concerned with the possibility that New Zealand rugby star Jonah Lomu would rob them of their World Cup rugby victory two weeks ago than to watch out for Murdoch.

''An onslaught of the king of lowest-common-denominator media that Murdoch prides himself in, coming before our own national broadcasting situation is sorted out and competitive, will probably mean a stillborn local television industry, swamped by the power of international trash,'' it said.

So far Murdoch has not responded.

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