What Happens When Billionaires Own Journalism?


KOOS BEKKER is a very rich South African. He effectively controls a massive portion of South African news and media. In many ways, he can be considered the Rupert Murdoch of Africa. He has a net worth of roughly $1.6 billion and is the chairman of Naspers, which controls or owns outlets such as the South African Huffington Post.

Rupert Murdoch is an apt comparison; he’s not the only billionaire who has a huge stake in journalism. The owners also aren’t exclusively in news media, and to many, their news outlets are a side project, a way to project power or simply something to have (like a car or an extra mansion).

Naspers and Ties to Censorship

Corporations and the extremely wealthy, as a general rule, do not care much about censorship. In fact, the only thing most of them will oppose is a lack of profits. For example, Naspers was complicit in the apartheid regime, and the Afrikaans press was used to keep the oppressive regime in place. They’ve apologized for their actions, but this only occurred far after apartheid turned out to be the losing side. In other words: when it was profitable and politically expedient to do so.

Naspers, having many interests that get in the way of the truth and holding ties to many companies and countries that can prove to be a competing influence (as opposed to the public good), is the perfect example of this.

To go into more detail, Naspers owns Media24, a media group that states it’s interested in freedom of the press and other media freedoms. Yet that comes into conflict with the fact that Naspers’ largest stake is in Tencent, a Chinese tech and social media company who enforces social media censorship by the Chinese government.

This raises a major concern: Do Naspers’ Chinese ties and Koos Becker’s business interests compromise the integrity of South African news? It would be easy for such a company to keep a few unfavorable stories quiet.

Media Consolidation

Even just fifty years ago it would be considered possible for a new startup, with some capital and resolve, to break into the news and media business and hope to succeed.

Now, given the equipment that is needed and the poor returns in general of the newspaper business (or the entire news industry), along with the fast-paced nature of online news, journalism is a rich man’s game, and that isn’t a good thing. In America, for example, 90 percent of their media is controlled by six companies. South Africa’s situation is hardly different.

These barriers to entry remove variety from the press, eliminating competition and lowering the standards of news for people. People will either get compromised or poorly-formed journalism or nothing at all. Unfortunately, there are few examples showing there’s a better way.

Voices Get Silenced

If the press isn’t free from corporate interests, it’s hardly different from government control. It’s merely serving a different entity with different priorities. Larger entities tied to power won’t report on threats to that power to avoid giving them their justified attention and public interest. When was the last time you heard about the Shack Dweller’s movement and their protests on a major station?

Individual voices and good journalists also get regularly silenced when they try to make the difference. Desmond Cole and the Toronto Star is merely one example of this outside of South Africa. Others accuse the media, including News24, of not showing good news whatsoever and inciting violence amongst the people.

People Fighting Back

The situation looks grim, but people can and will fight back against the oligarchic control of information perfectly encapsulated by Naspers’ actions. Billionaires, try as they might, do not have control of reality.

Citizen journalism has become a trend with the advent of social media and information technology. A video at a scene cannot be so easily denied as false, and a trending topic or a viral post cannot be so easily ignored by the media elites if they want to keep credibility with the public. While it’s not perfect and certainly does not meet the standards of independent professionals, its mere existence is a threat to corporate control and a step forward.

Other people continue to expose the truth while hiding from the limelight (and the wrath of those companies). People will cover their tracks and use tools such as online proxies to stay anonymous as they bring us the truth about conglomerates, from inside or without. Without people like this willing to fight back, there’s no telling what the state of the news media would be today.

Conclusion

This problem will not go away on its own, and it will likely get worse before it gets better. People need to know what is happening and how the billionaires are controlling them to feel the anger to fight back. There are more protagonists out there besides Naspers, and even if one person is taken out of the news arena, more will appear,  blocking genuine change in the way things are done or avoiding a viable alternative. There is a chance to change the flow of information, and South Africans can’t afford to miss out.

Do you happen to know anything else about Naspers or have a story you would like to share? Are you concerned about the growing consolidations of private media and the news? What else do you think they’re hiding? Please leave a comment below and tell us your thoughts.

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