Digital migration across Africa is all about dubious deals with Chinese

What you need to know:

  • Star Times has basically managed to dominate the digital migration space in Africa, driving the process in Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and many more.
  • Make no mistake. I don’t suffer Sinophobia. But where is national interest in allowing the Chinese to control broadcasting in Africa?
  • The deal Star Times has put on the table for the Ugandans has been mired in controversy. In Ghana, the authorities last month announced that they had cancelled the digital migration deal with Star Times.

The most disquieting feature of the raids by the Communications Authority of Kenya on broadcasting transmission stations is the barbaric and savage manner in which they are conducted.

Last week, they stormed transmission stations in Limuru and proceeded to yank and dismantle expensive equipment, without caring whether they were  causing permanent damage to these delicate gadgets.

It is not for me to say whether Mr Francis Wangusi’s men acted legally or not.

But while it is true that no one is above the law, it is equally true that as long as the Constitution we passed in 2010 lasts, every business entity in this country is above State terrorism.

And don’t let them fool you. The impasse over digital migration is not just about NTV, Citizen, KTN and QTV broadcasting resisting migration.

When they tell you that this conflict has come about because the three big local broadcasting houses lost the digital signal distribution tender in an open and competitive process, they are  deliberately pointing you in the wrong direction.

To understand this conflict, you have to look at the broader picture and examine recent activities of Star Times of China in other African countries.

Indeed, this conflict is about the tactics and games which the Chinese company is employing as it angles and positions itself to capture and control the whole digital migration process on the continent.

Star Times has been straddling the continent, cutting opaque deals with ministers of communications, telecommunication regulators and State-owned broadcasters, gobbling every deal in sight and leaving behind loud protests by incumbent broadcasters.

The deal Star Times has put on the table for the Ugandans has been mired in controversy. In Ghana, the authorities last month announced that they had cancelled the digital migration deal with Star Times.

“It is increasingly clear that Star Times and China Eximbank will not be able to support Ghana’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting by the deadline,” said Ghana’s communications minister.

In Zambia, controversy dogged the award of the digital transmission deal to Star Times in September 2013, forcing authorities in Lusaka to cancel the deal.

Interestingly, the complaints against Star Times in Zambia were lodged by two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE. Months later, the cancellation was rescinded and the deal handed back to Star Times.

In Mozambique, the shenanigans around Star Times and the digital migration process have been sensational. There were claims in the media that the partners of Star Times, an entity by the name Focus 21, was owned by the president’s daughter, one Valentine Guebuza.

ART OF CUTTING DEALS

Star Times has basically managed to dominate the digital migration space in Africa, driving the process in Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and many more.

What is my point? It is that the controversies surrounding Star Times and the whole process of digital migration on the continent  are primarily about how the Chinese company has perfected the art of cutting deals with communications ministers, telecommunications regulators and powerful political brokers in Africa.

Today, when as a local player, your interests clash with the interests of Chinese capital in the digital migration space, you will unwittingly find yourself pitted against an impregnable nexus of influential power brokers.

Make no mistake. I don’t suffer Sinophobia. But where is national interest in allowing the Chinese to control broadcasting in Africa?

Mark you, many countries in the West, including the United States, still have laws which impose foreign ownership restrictions in the broadcasting industry.

In this country, do we ever consider strategic interests when dealing with foreigners?

A few years ago, the Americans barred the Chinese ICT conglomerate, Huawei, from bidding for government contracts.

I liked the way a senior American security official, Mr Michael Chertoff defended the action against Huawei. He said: “If you allow a foreign company to build for you the network  on which all data flows, the company will be in a perfect position to populate it with backdoors and vulnerabilities that only the foreign company knows about. And, each time the foreign company upgrades it, that will be an opportunity to install new spyware” .

For once, let’s think about national interest.

(jkisero@ke.nationmedia.com)

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