DEMOCRATIC Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille has asked President Jacob Zuma to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate state funding of the pro-government newspaper The New Age.
The newspaper is owned by the Gupta family, who are benefactors of the president and the African National Congress (ANC).
Ms Zille said at a media briefing on Wednesday that an inquiry was necessary to uncover the extent and legality of the funding. She said "all the evidence points to the same thing: the ANC is using public money (both overtly and covertly) to fund a newspaper which is openly favourable to the government".
The DA has calculated that 77% of the newspaper’s advertising revenue came from government advertising, even though its circulation figures have not been audited. Government advertising (more than R27m) and sponsorships (more than R37m) had generated at least R64m for The New Age since December 2010, which Ms Zille said was likely the "tip of the iceberg".
Ms Zille said her withdrawal as guest speaker from one of The New Age’s breakfast briefings in protest against their sponsorship by state-owned enterprises had caused it to embark on a "vendetta" against her, which she described as "outrageous abuse" of a newspaper.
She has thus lodged a complaint with the press ombudsman.
Eskom and Transnet forked out a combined R25m in sponsorships for these breakfast functions.
To add to the controversy, it has emerged that Ms Zille accepted personal donations of R300,000 in 2009 from Stephan Nel, an executive at Sahara Computers, which is a Gupta company, and R100,000 from a Gupta company on behalf of the DA. Ms Zille said she had decided two years ago to ban any further donations from the Gupta family and their companies.
The New Age on Wednesday insisted that donations made to the DA from 2009 came from a Gupta group company and not an individual donor associated with the family.
The New Age CE Nazeem Howa has rubbished Ms Zille’s explanation that two cheques, one for R200,000 and another for R100,000, came from Mr Nel. The Guptas own Sahara Computers, and Atul Gupta is the company’s MD. The newspaper published a letter on Wednesday in which Ms Zille thanks Mr Gupta for his contribution to the party.
Ms Zille said that Mr Howa, Mr Gupta and the newspaper’s editor, Moegsien Williams, visited the home of DA federal chairman Wilmot James at the end of last year with the aim of getting the DA to put an end its parliamentary questions about advertising by government departments and state-owned enterprises in their newspaper.
"The three adopted a ‘heavy-handed’ approach. They suggested it would be best if the DA did not make an enemy of The New Age," Ms Zille said. Mr James had told them the DA would continue asking questions about the use of public funds.
The Gauteng provincial government disclosed that from January to November last year it spent R23.7m on newspaper advertising, of which R1m went to The New Age, R9m to the Sowetan, R7.3m to The Star, R3.3m to City Press, R1.7m to the Mail & Guardian, and R1.5m to the Sunday Times.
Meanwhile, the ANC issued a statement on Wednesday saying The New Age-SABC breakfast sessions were an innovative and important private initiative in strengthening our democracy by "ensuring an informed citizenry".