By Joe Ageyo
Nairobi; Kenya: For the last one week every kind of expert – some not so knowledgeable have sought to weigh in on this debate that often comes down to such airy terminologies as spectrum, Set-Top Boxes, Free-to-Air and the list is endless.
For some, the current impasse is simply a battle of big business fighting for turf. For others it is about a group of ‘dinosaurs’ resisting inevitable change. Yet others have even suggested that this is just what the doctor ordered for Kenya’s fledgling ICT sector. Content producers have hailed it as a bonanza and some of the viewers who are lucky to have – yes, Set-Top Boxes – are wowed by the increased variety.
Let me begin by stating that I am all for digital migration. As a journalist who has been around for a while, I would be more than happy to see an expanded creative space and a plurality of news platforms. In fact, the more the employers, the better for journalists. So, what then is the problem with digital migration as conceived in Kenya?
From a journalistic standpoint my concern is basic – freedom. First, let me explain a basic difference between analogue and digital systems that has direct implications for freedom. Under the analogue system, every broadcaster established and maintained its own transmission infrastructure. This means that if NTV had a problem with its transmitter in Limuru, KTN would still be on air. In the same breath if Artur brothers raided the KTN studios and switched off the station, KBC would still continue with its normal broadcasts. Under the digital system however, all the channels give up their signal distribution function and simply hand over their content to a licenced signal distributor for onward transmission to the viewer. This is a great thing because it is a more efficient use of the precious commodity known as frequencies and it reduces the cost of setting up a TV channel, among other potential benefits. But the devil lies is in the detail. Because this signal distributor carries all of television in the country, care must always be taken to ensure the independence of such a body.
In Kenya that onerous task of distributing the signals of all channels, currently lies with just two companies. One is Signet, that is owned by the State Broadcaster, KBC. The second is PANG, a wholly-Chinese company (although latest indications suggest that it has some faceless Kenyan shareholders). And that, according to me, is where the real danger lies. The Communications Authority has not lost a moment to declare to the world that digital migration has brought on board more than 50+ channels to viewers who had only 10 or so before. What CA does not say however, is the fact that all these channels can be controlled from two central locations – one at KBC (which is fully in government’s control) and the other at PANG (China of course doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to media freedom.). So on the day that any one of these channels decides to air something that is extremely critical of the government of the day, what guarantees are there that the signal won’t be scrambled or pulled down altogether? This is not far-fetched in a country where media houses have been raided in order to stall publication of critical stories. The number of calls editors get from government functionaries any time a hard-hitting investigative piece is about to air also suggests that these officials would do more than just ask questions if they had the power to switch off a channel.
I will leave all the big arguments about corporate interests to those who are best placed to fight that battle, but as a journalist and a believer in true diversity in information sources, I am worried that now there are only two switches that can turn off all television screens in Kenya and they lie in the hands of two outfits whose independence from government is doubtful.