A Chinese firm is at the center of Kenya's digital TV signal distribution controversy, stirring fears that the company may be used by the government to interfere with communications during next year's general elections.
The Pan African Network Group won the tender for the country's second digital TV signal distribution operation, but the two local stations that lost the bid allege that the government is setting up mechanisms to interfere with media freedom ahead of next year's general election. The first signal distribution license is held by national broadcaster Kenya Broadcasting Corp. through government funding.
"Awarding signal distribution license to a foreigner exposes the country to potential sabotage," said James Rege, chairman of Parliamentary Group on ICT. "What would happen if the Chinese decided to switch off the distribution when the 2012 votes are being counted?"
A media debate erupted last week after a consortium of Kenya's two leading media houses -- Nation Media Group and Royal Media Services -- lost an appeal seeking to overturn the Communications Commission of Kenya decision to award the contract to the Pan African Network Group.
In a variety of interviews, the two companies alleged that the government should have awarded the contract to local companies because they have existing infrastructure and the Chinese firm would have to start afresh. They also argued that the government should promote local businesses and not hand lucrative contracts to the Chinese.
However, the CCK has said, among other things, that the media missed the point, because the existing analog broadcasting infrastructure will not be a factor in digital broadcasting.
"None of the investments Nation and Royal Media have except land can be usable in the current signal distribution arrangement," said Francis Wangusi, director of Licensing Compliance and Standards, Special Projects and Broadcast at CCK. "Even in the case of land, not all sites they are broadcasting from are designated digital broadcasting sites as per the CCK plan."
"The masts they have if subjected to the new digital antenna weights they are expected to carry cannot pass the desired tests; therefore anybody who secures a signal distribution licence may have to make completely new arrangements to meet the requirements of the Signal Distribution market either through co-location building [or] completely new infrastructure," Wangusi added.
According to the 2009 national census, there are 3.5 million TV sets in Kenya, and the Chinese firm will have to invest about US$400 million. Wangusi argues that a player cannot risk such an investment by switching off the signal.
The license was awarded under the unified licensing framework, which will allow the signal distributor to offer other services such as pay-per-view and also provide data, voice and video within the same network.
The government has acknowledged that the decision to award the license to a commercial company is one way of promoting competition and addressing some of the mistakes made during allocation of spectrum.
"We now have the greatest opportunity to address the mistakes we made before with spectrum management by allowing as many Kenyans to own the channels as possible; this is the reason why we are giving 3 signal distributor licenses -- it will bring the necessary competition that will benefit the consumer," said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication, when answering questions at an online forum.
The tender was advertised in February this year and was mainly aimed at dividing the broadcast sector into two -- signal distributors and content providers. Existing broadcasters are required to apply afresh to the CCK, specifying the licenses they would like to hold.
The Kenyan controversy comes weeks after the Chinese government was accused of helping to block news websites in Ethiopia and jammed Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and other broadcasters. The Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) has said that China has been providing training, technology and technical assistance to the regime to enable it to jam ESAT's transmission.