In December, GOtv dropped charges against the Zambia National Broadcasting Corp (ZNBC), China’s TopStar Communications and the Zambian government.
This was after free-to-air channels, which GOtv had carried since its inception in 2011, were blocked from the platform without warning in December 2016, according to MultiChoice, which also operates a satellite TV service in Zambia.
Digital terrestrial television service GOtv, a partnership between MultiChoice and the ZNBC, last year made an urgent high court application to prevent the ZNBC and TopStar from interfering with its signal.
However, it abandoned the legal route in December. Instead, it negotiated individual contracts with free-to-air channel providers to restore these signals for its customers, say people familiar with the matter. GOtv now broadcasts eight free-to-air channels.
MultiChoice’s relations with the state broadcaster soured after the ZNBC partnered with China’s StarTimes to launch digital TV company TopStar, which has been tasked with driving the country’s migration from analogue to digital broadcasting.
The TopStar joint venture is 60% owned by StarTimes — a structure which gives StarTimes majority control over Zambia’s digital television services and de facto control over the public broadcaster, analysts say.
The joint venture was accompanied by a loan of more than US$200m from the Export-Import Bank of China for investments in the digital broadcasting network and other infrastructure.
The loan has come under scrutiny from opposition parties and the former head of the ZNBC, who has argued that it is not commercially viable and costs have been inflated.
The loan agreement stipulates that TopStar will collect all ZNBC advertising revenues and tower rental fees for 25 years.
Zambian media say the ZNBC has since struggled to pay salaries and other operating costs.
The Zambia Business Times reported last year that former ZNBC director-general Chibamba Kanyama said the TopStar entity would drain the ZNBC of income.
“Having been part of this process and made the initial negotiation with StarTimes in China, I know [the deal is] a rip-off.”
Kanyama said initial loan negotiations were abandoned in 2013, when it was agreed that the digital migration process should cost less than $100m.
Independent TV critic Thinus Ferreira says the TopStar joint venture gives China’s StarTimes de facto control over the state broadcaster, which means there will be “undue influence” over broadcasting and digital migration.
The move to cut free-to-air channels to licensed broadcasters is illegal, he says. Further, the loan from the Chinese government gives the communist state influence over Zambia’s public sector.
Ferreira says StarTimes has been “very aggressive” with its expansion strategy in Africa, where it competes primarily with MultiChoice for market share using a number of different tactics.
Though it is not known if StarTimes was responsible, Ferreira says MultiChoice recently had its spectrum unexpectedly retracted in two towns, meaning the pay-TV provider had to scramble to restore services.
Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird says Africa’s shift to digital broadcasting is in many cases “being determined not by public interests but by commercial interests”. The de facto privatisation of Zambia’s national broadcaster is “extraordinary and shocking,” he says.
“Selling off your public broadcaster has fantastically long-term negative implications. New Zealand effectively privatised its public broadcaster and for the past 10 years has been desperately trying to claim back a sense of what a public broadcaster should be.”
Zambia’s switch to digital broadcasting began in October last year. Some towns will have both analogue and digital signals until the end of this month.
GOtv Zambia is also converting signals. So far, the company has converted 11 analogue broadcast sites across the country.
The ZNBC and Zambia’s communication department did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, SA’s migration from analogue to digital broadcasting has been painfully slow. In its home market, MultiChoice has been accused of having improper dealings with the SABC and formerly Gupta-owned ANN7.