Zambia’s government refuses to back down on a decision to award 60% share in the national broadcaster, despite a public outcry and rebukes from the opposition.
Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation

The Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) has entered a 25-year deal with Chinese digital television provider TopStar, a subsidiary of StarTimes. The 60% stake in the government owned, publicly funded broadcaster has been given in exchange for a joint venture to roll out the next phase in the country’s digital transition.

The deal will see TopStar distribute decoders for digital television under its brand, contributing towards the second and third stage of the country’s digital migration strategy. So far only Phase 1 has been completed along an area of the country’s arterial rail line, due to a lack of funds

Yet the deal has proven highly controversial and has been widely perceived as a privatisation of the national broadcaster, with minimal consultation of the public, opposition parties or ZNBC stakeholders. According to IT Web Africa, the 25-year deal will also allow TopStar to collect all ZNBC advertising revenues and broadcast tower rental fees.

This revenue will apparently be used to service a US$273million loan taken by the Zambian government from the Export-Import Bank of China, which was used to pay for the building of provincial studios, equipment upgrades and the expansion of the country’s digital broadcast network.

This huge cost has been highly criticised, with the former Director-General of ZNBC, Chibamba Kanyama, labelling the deal a “rip-off”. Referencing his part in previous negotiations in 2013, the former DG claimed that digital migration could have been achieved for less than US$100 million and without the need for a substantial loan.

However, in a news briefing the Information and Broadcasting Services Minister, Kampamba Mulenga, said the that the deal was “final” and did not amount to privatisation. According to the minister the sale of ZNBC would require both a cabinet resolution and the amendment of four laws, including the constitution.

Despite these assurances, however, the government has failed to make a breakdown of the investment available to the public or independent experts so that it can be evaluated for overpricing.

Across the border

The Zambia-China deal comes at a time when a number of countries are increasingly asserting their influence as African nations transition from analogue broadcasting.

Last week the Japanese government provided a grant of US$620,000 to the Malawian government to assist the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) in modernising outdated production equipment and progress their digital migration.

In a statement to Malawi Voice, the Japanese Ambassador, Kae Yanagisawa, said that the grant will benefit people’s access to educational material:

“[The grant] will help to strengthen public broadcast programmes and improve the quality of production. In addition, the grant will also facilitate the procurement of Japanese TV programs which are educative and informative programs focusing more on mathematics, science and technology, health and agriculture and suitable for people of all ages”.

Yet despite the improvements in technology, transmission quality and media plurality that digital TV can offer, critics argue that a rapid switchover will leave many people behind, especially those that cannot afford the cost of digital set-top boxes. Moreover, scepticism surrounds the agenda of overseas investment and the potential monopolisation of local networks, where the procurement and broadcast of international content could outweigh that of local producers.

This was a particular concern of Article 19 following Tanzania’s StarTimes-assisted switchover in 2012, where only 50% of TV owners could access content due to the financial burden and lack of awareness of digital transition. In 2013 the advocacy group called on the Tanzania Telecommunication Regulatory Authority to ensure media pluralism and the right to freedom of expression by providing financial assistance and information to those unable to keep pace with the change.

Digital transition can certainly offer an improvement in broadcast quality, a wider spectrum and greater choice for viewers, but transition can easily be mismanaged. Assurances need to be made that ensure equal access and the ongoing availability of analogue services during transition for the most financially vulnerable. This also applies to local commercial and public broadcasters who can easily be pushed out of the market due to higher operating costs, leaving a monopoly for the bigger players.

Header image: Ninara/Creative Commons