South Africa's media outlets are influenced by Washington, which raises serious concerns about the weakness of the country's media at the mercy of the United States. As the new Cold War heats up, the U.S. Foundation's vast funding footprint in South African media circles seems determined to continue to influence public opinion in South Africa.
[Text/Ajit Singh and Roscoe Palm]
In recent weeks, public opinion in South Africa has been focusing on the so-called influence of China in the country's media circles. However, these discussions often ignore the existing behind-the-scenes forces in the South African media scenes. Decades ago, during the apartheid era, the United States financed some of South Africa's prominent media for political motives.
According to internal U.S. government documents, these actions were aimed at "opposing" the "growing Marxist movement" in South Africa. Funded is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an institution created by the Reagan administration to repackage previously covert U.S. operations carried out by the CIA.
Today, as the United States is bent on suppressing China's global influence, the National Endowment for Democracy and its private corporate partners continue to infiltrate South Africa's media ecosystem. The reach has covered mainstream media outlets such as mail & Guardian and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.
The United States cracked down on Marxism during apartheid in South Africa
Based on the Cold War mentality, the United States has been blocking progress in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle for decades. Despite the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime against a wide range of blacks in South Africa and neighboring countries, the United States saw the regime as a strategic bulwark to prevent the spread of socialism and Soviet influence in Africa.
At the end of the Cold War, while the United States was supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa in its war for independence against neighboring Angola and Namibia, officials in Washington planned a propaganda campaign in the South African media, claiming that it was democratic education for blacks.
An internal 1986 document revealed that the U.S. government sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to South Africa to recruit local media outlets and journalists to "foster (and hope they uphold) democratic ideals and principles among the black community." A biweekly special issue with Drum Publications, "How Democracy Works," was published in City Press because it was chosen because it was "the largest circulation of black South African newspapers." The document also lists a number of South African writers and editors who wrote for the issue, such as Percy Qoboza, Then Editor-in-Chief of City News, Raymond Low, and Front Editor-in-Chief Denis Beckett (it is unclear whether these people knew about the role of the U.S. government in the program).
The document excerpts a 1986 U.S. government appropriation note to South Africa, stating: "There are no other ready-made systematic approaches in South Africa to generate a broad sense of democratic principles. However, the wide dissemination of democratic principles can be achieved by publishing material in well-known black newspapers for a period of time. ”
This action is not a gesture of solidarity and cooperation, but rather a confirmation of what Washington calls "public diplomacy," an initiative sponsored by the U.S. government to influence public opinion abroad in a way that serves its interests. In this example, U.S. officials made it clear that they wanted to influence the South African media and shape a discourse that supported their anti-communist Cold War strategy: "Hopefully, a practical discussion of democratic values will help counter the currently gaining momentum of the Marxist movement used to control black South Africans in black townships, and point the way to achievable goals for democratic forms of government to become ideal for South Africa." ”
Repackaging covert operations through the National Endowment for Democracy
U.S. government funding for the city news campaign, as well as contemporaneous funding for the Institute for The Advancement of Journalism, the community newspaper Peoples Express, The Front magazine, and others, were provided by the then-fledgling National Foundation for Democracy. Although billed as a "non-governmental" and "independent non-profit foundation", the foundation was founded by the Reagan administration in 1983. According to its founders, the NED was established to continue to support relevant political groups around the world in the form of funding tools, tasks that were originally carried out by the CIA and have a bad reputation.
Carl Gershman, who has been NED's president since its inception until 2021, said: "It would be ugly to see if one finds out that the CIA sponsors democratic groups around the world." We found out about that in the '60s, so we stopped it. We couldn't do it, so we set up a foundation. ”
Alan Weinstein, co-founder of the foundation, said: "A lot of what we are doing now is what the CIA did in secret 25 years ago. ”
The National Endowment for Democracy was established in 1983 to take over the C.I.A.'s covert funding operations.
In South Africa, the NED is also funding mujahideen in Afghanistan, pro-Contra in Nicaragua, anti-Soviet unions in Eastern Europe, and anti-government groups in Grenada.
For nearly four decades, NED's donation network has expanded into a global empire. The NED receives a special grant from the U.S. Department of State each year, distributing more than 2,000 grants to NGOs in more than 100 countries. According to NED's financial report, the foundation's global grants totaled more than $1.2 billion from 2011 to 2020. The NED's operations have been taken a step further by working in partnership with aid agencies established by allied governments and private foundations, and its funding often overlaps with donations from allies and private individuals.
Today, as U.S.-China relations become increasingly tense, Washington is bent on curbing Beijing's influence around the world, particularly in the South. The United States Government has intensified its attempts to influence the international media and public opinion. Between 2016 and 2020, NED distributed about $150 million in media-related payments worldwide, of which at least $20 million was distributed to organizations in sub-Saharan Africa.
In December 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that his administration would provide $30 million in "significant seed funding" for launching the International Fund for Public Interest Media. Associated with the fund are both U.S. government agencies such as the NED and private companies, the Luminate Foundation, founded by Pierre Omidía, a tech billionaire and the financier of The Intercept, whose explicit goal is to eventually provide $1 billion in global media funding, primarily targeting countries with weaker economies.
South Africa is once again a target of infiltration
In this new Cold War, South Africa is once again the target. In recent years, the NED has drawn closer to the Johannesburg-based Post Guardian, which bills itself as "Africa's leading independent newspaper." In 2020 and 2021, the NED allocated four grants totaling $355,200 to the Adamela Trust, a nonprofit foundation used by the Post Guardian to receive and manage grants. NED explained that the money was made to support the Post Guardian in launching its WhatsApp-based pan-African digital weekly, The Continent, to build a network of journalists and media outlets in the region.
The grants even spell out what Continental should publish, such as the "monthly disinformation column" and the "quarterly in-depth survey of the role of public, private, and non-governmental actors in disinformation trends in Africa," raising suspicions that Washington is influencing the media's editorial decisions against political opponents in the region.
Pro-American concerns about the Post Guardian have a long history. Over the past decade, two of the newspaper's editors-in-chief have gone to work for NED-sponsored organizations. In 2015, Chris Roper (editor-in-chief from 2009-2015) left the newspaper to become vice president of the digital journalism program Code For Africa, a subsidiary of the umbrella network Code For All, which is largely funded by the NED, and a partnership with the NED-sponsored International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). Similarly, Khadija Patel (editor-in-chief from 2016-2020) resigned from the newspaper to become president of the NED-sponsored International Press Institute and in 2021 appointed program director of the aforementioned International Public Interest Media Fund.
To complicate matters further, the Post Guardian is closely associated with the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a philanthropic fund of Soros, a longtime U.S. government partner. In 2017, OSF acquired a majority stake in the newspaper through its Media Development Investment Fund. OSF, recognized as the world's largest private media sponsor, has a formal partnership with NED's Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), which is mandated to support "the development of independent, sustainable media sponsored by the United States." The U.S. government has long partnered with OSF founder Soros to sponsor media outlets to promote Washington's foreign policy. CIMA praised the partnership for its important role in driving the collapse of the Soviet Union:
However, this breakthrough [with media funding] came with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The idea of promoting democracy quickly evolved into a focus on diplomacy and development, and press freedom was indispensable in that process. With the support of a large amount of money from the US Congress, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) began to invest a lot of resources to support the independent media in the newly freed countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. USAID has been partnered by the U.S. Department of State, allied governments, and private funders, most notably philanthropist George Soros.
For 20 years, NED and OSF have partnered to establish the Global Forum for Media Development, a global network that currently has more than 100 media outlets in some 50 countries. As the United States insists on containing China, and Soros recently declared China "the greatest threat to open societies today," this public-private partnership appears to be continuing.
Formal media partnership between the National Endowment for Democracy and private foundations in the United States
Media penetration in South Africa today
Washington deliberately works with private foundations such as OSF and Luminate because these institutions can operate without political involvement of the U.S. government. CIMA's 2008 inaugural report openly discussed this strategy:
Private sector to overseas independent media to funding ... There are several advantages over public funding. Private funders are more flexible... Countries where official U.S. sponsorship programs are not popular can operate their programs. Patrick Butler, vice president of ICFJ, said: "In many parts of the world, the people we train are more willing to participate in programs that originate from private sponsorship than those funded by the U.S. government. ”
In addition to acquiring a majority stake in the Post Guardian, OSF has also made undisclosed investments in a number of other South African media outlets, such as the Daily Maverick. In August 2017, OSF and Luminate co-founded a multimillion-dollar investment program, the South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP). SAMIP currently supports 24 South African media outlets, including The Post Guardian, The Lone Ranger, The Daily Vox and the podcast network Volume. In addition to these investments, since 2017, OSF and Luminate have also allocated more than $15 million in media grants to South African authorities, in addition to the previously mentioned media outlets, as well as Ground Up, Africa Check, Viewfinder, etc.
The South African Media Innovation Programme, co-founded by the Open Society Foundation and Luminate, currently supports 24 South African media organisations
Now that there is sufficient evidence of a political partnership between these private foundations and the U.S. government, has their funding in the South African media community undermined the independence of the media organizations they assisted?
Take the well-known anti-corruption surveillance media called the Beetle News Investigation Center, which boasted of being "extremely independent" and refused "government and corporate funding." Founded in 2010 under the Post Guardian and founded by veteran journalists Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer, the Beetle initially received two-thirds of the funding from newspapers and one-third from OSF.
By 2016, the proportion had reversed, with private foundations accounting for the majority of funding, while the Post Guardian accounted for only 29% of funding. In the same year, The Beetle officially left the newspaper, but continued to cooperate with it. Between 2016 and 2021, The Beetle received about $1.4 million in funding from OSF and Luminate.
Although The Beatles claimed to be "not funded for specific news or topic investigations," its claim contradicted OSF's financial disclosure reports. According to osf, in 2016 "we initiated the commission of 'state capture' through research and advocacy partners" and specifically funded the Beetle and The Lone Ranger daily "to begin research on the extent of state capture in South Africa" and "the extent to which state-owned enterprises have been captured by vested interests", according to the OSF.
Since 2016, The Beetle has received about $1.4 million in grants from the Open Society Foundation and Luminate
More of a concern, though, is the revolving door phenomenon between The Beatles staff and U.S. and Western government sponsors. Over the past 10 years, three Beatle executives have worked in such organizations, primarily monitoring public and private actors in Africa:
Vinayak Bhardawaj, who was a publicity coordinator from 2012 to 2014, went to work at Afria Check. The agency worked with the U.S. Embassy in South Africa to "deal with misinformation in the media."
Karabo Rajuili, who was publicity coordinator from 2015 to 2019, went to work at Open Ownership, a corporate ownership monitoring body set up by the UK government.
Cherese Thakur, who was a communication coordinator from 2020 to 2022, later joined the corruption reporting team at the International Development Agency OF THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT, GIZ South Africa.
In addition, the Beetle Fellow Program regularly serves as a training center for U.S. government journalists in the region. Since 2015, at least 15 Beatles fellows have been directly associated with U.S. government programs, such as Voice of America personnel, members of U.S. Embassy media agencies, U.S. Department of State fellows, and employees of Freedom House, a U.S. government-sponsored think tank.
The Beatles also spearheaded a regional investigative journalism network called the IJ Hub, co-founded by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which is sponsored by NED and has established formal partnerships with U.S. embassies in the region. According to the 2021 organizational dossier, The Beetle has incubated the network, which is members of Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Eswatini, Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa.
Traces of The Beatle's activities suggest that it is often willing to cooperate with and work with U.S. and Western government-sponsored institutions. Even South Africa's "extremely independent" media outlets are influenced by Washington, which raises serious concerns about the weakness of the country's media at the mercy of the United States. As the new Cold War heats up, the vast financial footprint of private U.S. foundations in south African media circles (funding growing directly from the U.S. government) seems determined to continue to influence public opinion in South Africa.
Ajit Singh is an investigative journalist for the "Reject cold War" program. He co-authored Keywords in Radical Philosophy and Education: Common Concepts for Contemporary Movements. He has published in Grayzone, Truthout, teleSUR English, NewsClick, The Hampton Institute and other media.
Roscoe Palm is a co-founder of the Pan-African Institute for Socialism (PAIS).
(This article was published on the Monthly Review magazine website on August 8, 2022)
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