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Three media houses justified to cease broadcasting

COMMENTARY
By Samuel Murunga | February 21st 2015

NAIROBI: Like most Kenyans, I have been following with piqued curiosity the titanic tussle between Standard Group Limited (KTN), Royal Media Services (Citizen TV) and Nation Media Group (NTV and Qtv) on one hand and the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) and Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology on the other. After months of seemingly never ending lawsuits and public posturing on digital migration, the Supreme Court appeared to draw a line under the issue when it delivered what many consider a compromise verdict on February 13. The court restored the three media houses’ self provisioning licence, which had been withdrawn by CAK, but also allowed the authority to switch off all analogue frequencies.

CAK wasted little time in instructing the three media houses, operating as the Africa Digital Networks Ltd consortium (ADN), to switch their TV stations off the analogue platform by midnight. The directive was disobeyed, prompting CAK to obtain a court order to forcefully shut down the consortium’s analogue transmission stations. The court order was granted and fully executed on February 14. The affected media houses immediately responded by switching off their digital transmission as well, effectively plunging the country into a TV blackout.

A lot has been said about the drastic turn of events. Kenyans have ventilated on the issue, both for and against the media houses. My take is in support of the media houses’ decision. Serious questions have been asked of CAK’s handling of the digital migration saga that remain unanswered.

Why did CAK deny the major players in the local TV industry a digital broadcast signal distribution (BSD) licence in the first place? What criteria did the authority use in awarding the Pan Africa Group (PANG) more than half (120) of all digital frequencies so far allocated? Considering that PANG and Signet (KBC) control a very small share of the Kenyan TV market, whose interests do they serve by controlling the bulk of digital frequencies?

What justification is there for forcing the three main media houses to provide their content for free to digital platforms that are charging us Kenyans (making profit) for their services? Was the move to expeditiously switch off the three media houses’ analogue transmissions calculated to benefit erstwhile peripheral local TV stations? What due consideration has been given in regard to the media houses intellectual property rights?

CAK Director General Francis Wangusi and the ICT Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, should answer these questions and many more urgently. It is my opinion that forcing the three media houses to provide their content to competitors for free is akin to coercing someone to prepare a meal then give it to a stranger while going hungry! It violates basic tenets of natural law

It is standard practice in most progressive countries for the media industry to be majority-owned by local investors. The reasons for this are many and obvious to any intelligent person. On the many occasions when our nation’s image has been sullied in foreign media, our local media have remained balanced, patriotic and true.

It says a lot about our government’s commitment to media freedom that it would award the bulk of digital broadcast frequencies to a company owned by a government that serially and unapologetically restricts freedom of the media and access to information.

I believe it is possible for ADN to import set-top boxes and other equipment needed to actualise their self provisioning licence well within the global digital migration deadline of June 17. CAK and the Ministry of ICT need only exercise some flexibility. Conversely, the consortium should be careful not to portray itself as an entitled cartel. Both copyright law and common courtesy dictate that one seeks consent before using another’s intellectual property, which PANG, Signet and MultiChoice are accused of not doing.

Transparency, fairness and accountability are important aspects of good governance. Sadly, the Government’s handling of digital migration flops each of them. Urgent efforts must be taken and compromises made to resolve the TV blackout impasse. Meanwhile, majority Kenyans remain disenfranchised from their preferred TV news and programmes.

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