Kenyan broadcasters off air in digital migration stand-off with government

Kenyan television broadcasters go on nationwide black out to protest the mandatory move to digital transmission from analogue, saying the process of issuing broadcast signal broadcast licences was flawed and unfair, and that they want to broadcast digital signals on their own platforms.

NAIROBI, KENYA (FEBRUARY 16, 2015) (REUTERS) – Four Kenyan television stations went off air on Saturday (February 14) after the government switched off the country’s analogue signal as part of a global migration to digital broadcast by June 17.

KTN, NTV, Citizen TV and QTV went blank on all platforms – including existing digital channels, airing only a message to their viewers that they had been forced to go off air in compliance with a Communications Authority (CA) order.

In protest they also switched off their own signals so viewers who already have set-top-boxes or pay TV decoders, which can convert the analogue signal to digital are also unable to view the four broadcasters.

They accuse the CA of flouting regulations and lacking transparency in the issuance of digital Broadcast Signal Distribution (BSD) licences, which have only been given to two firms – state-owned Signet and Pan African Network Group (PANG) – a Chinese company.

Owners of the four media houses turned to the courts to push the CA to issue them with BSD licences of their own and to ask for more time to acquire the infrastructure needed to distribute the digital signal. Several rulings and appeals have been made.

The government has called the media houses refusal to migrate, “cartel behaviour” and said it will take action against them if they do not comply.

“We are not going to be intimidated and we will not be blackmailed and they had better come to terms with this reality. We are not going back on digital migration and they can stay off as long as they want. We are not going back on digital migration, they had better get that loud and clear. We are not going back,” said Information, Communication and Technology Minister, Fred Matiangi.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) set June 2015 as the deadline for the migration to switch off analogue broadcasts in several regions of the world, including Africa.

The digital migration is expected to improve picture and audio quality, make more room on the airwaves for added and varied content as well as create thousands of jobs.

But the switch-over will also cost governments and consumers millions of dollars.

To access the digital signal, viewers have to buy a set-top box which costs about 50 US dollars or have a digitally enabled television, which can be anywhere above hundreds of dollars.

Christopher Mfiku sells television aerials in one of the most densely populated areas of Nairobi. He says ever since the migration began, he has lost business because everyone is now saving up to buy decoders or set-top boxes.

“Now this business is not doing good because people are not buying aerials. Before this whole digital thing we used to make good money but now I am seeing as if this business is dwindling,” he said.

Authorities say digital migration is imminent and have been carrying out awareness campaigns since 2008 when the Digital Television Committee was set up.

Kenyan broadcasters caught in the stand-off with the government say they are not against the switch but that the process has been unfair and without transparency.

Consumers say they are confused.

“I cannot say that I understand what’s happening with the government or what they are thinking. I don’t know what they are planning but on my side I am just miserable because we cant watch anything to understand what’s happening in the country in terms of the news, the programs we used to watch… we just don’t understand,” said Miriam Ochieng.

“Well I think those stations should comply with what the government wants or what the court ruling said. Otherwise there’s no way you can keep on going to court and the judge has already told you what they want and the decision is on the table. Otherwise it is obscene,” said Anthony Kabucho.

“I believed is that since i have a digital set box or decoder I would not have any effect when they shut the signal down for local channels so I don’t feel okay because are we going to pay for the decoder services or are we going to pay for local channels. What do we pay,” said Purity Aliaro.

The broadcasters have so far not given any indication as to how long they will stay off air. The government says the stations risk losing their broadcast licenses if the black out continues.