Fears for press freedom as Mbeki allies buy out critical media group

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The Independent Online

President Thabo Mbeki's political adviser, a foreign ministry official, and a businessman have made a bid to take over Johncom, one of South Africa's most influential media groups, including a newspaper which has frequently been critical of the government.

The move has drawn criticism from Mr Mbeki's opponents, who accuse him of hurting South Africa's democracy by purging opponents and stifling dissent. He denies the allegations. It will also spark controversy at a time when the opposition is watching Mr Mbeki's every move as he competes in the race to lead the ruling African National Congress (ANC), a post which usually brings with it the presidency.

Johncom owns a chain of cinemas, bookshops and a clutch of South African magazines and newspapers but it is the group's flagship, The Sunday Times, which upsets government and senior ANC figures with personal attacks and reports on irregularities. The Sunday Times said yesterday that its parent company had received a R7bn (£510m) offer from Koni Media Holdings.

Its most recent standoff saw the paper brand the Health Minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a thief and a liar, prompting mutterings about greater press control and the cancellation of government advertising with the paper.

The paper's editor, Mondli Makhanya, has denied anti-government bias and maintains the paper is even handed when reporting on political impropriety.

Among those involved in the Koni bid are Mr Mbeki's personal adviser, Titus Mafolo, foreign affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa, and the former chief of state protocol, Billy Modise, the paper reported.

Koni's chief executive, Groovin Nchabeleng, confirmed that a bid had been lodged last Monday.

"We could not have wished for a better opportunity than what presents itself through Johncom," Mr Nchabeleng said. "It is our intention to establish a fully integrated media and entertainment company that could take the industry in this country to levels that are fully competitive with companies in Europe, the UK and the US."

Koni's offer comes a month after the Mvelaphanda Group, fronted by businessman Tokyo Sexwale, acquired a 30 per cent stake in Johncom. Mr Sexwale is hoping to succeed Mr Mbeki as president of the ANC next month but the campaign is becoming vitriolic with fears of a split within the organisation.

Mr Mbeki is barred from seeking a third term as president in 2009 but can remain as ANC leader, where critics fear he will become the power behind the throne. Opposing him is Mr Sexwale and ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma, who is supported by the trade unions but may face renewed charges in an arms corruption case that has dogged him.

Speculation also continues that businessman Cyril Ramaphosa will join the race. Mr Ramaphosa, 54, a former trade unionist, was the ANC's chief negotiator during talks that led to a peaceful end to apartheid in 1994 and is widely respected.

Anton Harber, a media professor at Johannesburg's Wits University, said it was unlikely the Koni bid would have gone ahead without Mr Mbeki knowing. "Clearly it involves acting and sitting members of government against a background of very severe criticism by the government of The Sunday Times," Professor Harber said.

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