DIGITAL MIGRATION OP-ED
Dear President Ramaphosa, Communications Minister Ntshavheni is not picking up the citizen signal
Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni refuses to recognise the community television sector as a stakeholder in the digital migration process, calling it ‘insignificant’ despite a collective viewership of more than eight million.
Dear President Ramaphosa,
As you have often pointed out, our participatory democracy is built on the rule of law, an independent judiciary, diverse and independent media and an active citizenry.
For citizenry to be active, it is necessary that the government actually listens to what people are saying. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Broadcast Digital Migration (BDM) project, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, is not doing that.
Since October 2021, the minister has been hell-bent on pushing through the analogue switch-off at all costs. She has been told that millions of South Africans will be left without the ability to receive a digital TV signal, which will decimate the viewership of free to air (FTA) broadcasters, drive advertisers away from FTA channels and potentially lead to the demise of public interest broadcasting – a hard-won democratic gain.
In so doing, this will consolidate Multichoice’s dominance in the television market. Is that what you want?
No one in their right mind doubts the urgency with which spectrum must be released to allow for cheaper telecommunications and faster broadband internet. Our economy and our citizens depend on it. What we are challenging is the irresponsible and dictatorial manner in which the switch-off is being managed.
In October last year, after 15 years of corruption and poor leadership, the new minister set an arbitrary date for the switch-off – the end of March 2022. She hastily convened the broadcast digital migration project steering committee to fulfill her obligation to consult affected parties, but didn’t actually listen to anyone.
As a licenced television broadcaster, Cape Town TV tried to get representation on this committee. But our request was ignored, along with our letter of appeal to the minister and any attempts to meet with her. It seems the minister refuses to recognise community television as a stakeholder in the migration process, claiming on national television that the community TV sector is “insignificant”, despite it being the third tier of broadcasting in South Africa, with a collective viewership of more than eight million.
The minister is determined to not recognise the concerns of South Africa’s FTA broadcasters, all of whom have expressed grave concerns about a “hard switch-off”. The SABC has been effectively gagged from speaking out against the minister, who is the SABC’s main shareholder. If they do, as happened in the recent SABC board statement urging that the analogue switch-off be delayed, they face the minister’s wrath and retribution.
The minister referred to those involved in the #SaveFreeTV campaign as “liars” in Parliament for pointing out how many people (as opposed to households) would be affected by the analogue switch-off. Is this an appropriate way for a minister in a cabinet to refer to a coalition of 70 concerned civil society organisations?
In a democratic South Africa, we should not have to choose between public interest, free TV and fast broadband internet. This would be like asking people to choose between health and education. We can and must have both.
Mr President, we are asking you to instruct your minister to engage meaningfully with FTA broadcasters, as well as Sentech and Icasa, to find technical solutions aimed at fast-tracking the release of spectrum, while allowing time for audiences to migrate to their platform of choice through effective marketing and awareness, and other market interventions.
This may require some compromise and “out-of-the-box” thinking but we believe it is possible, provided that we are allowed to discuss these matters freely and liaise with other FTA broadcasters without being insulted and dismissed as “irrelevant” or “captured” by the minister.
For example, it’s quite possible to accommodate analogue broadcasts on a limited number of transmitters, using frequencies below 694 MHz in the band earmarked for the now-abandoned wireless open network, without disrupting the sale or transfer of frequencies in the digital dividend. It’s a strategy the minister simply refuses to consider.
Having an independent and diverse media and an active citizenry is not something you can switch on and off when it suits you. Sometimes you have to listen to ideas you don’t want to hear. But listen you must, if democracy is going to work. DM
Lunga Guza is Chairperson and Karen Thorne is Station Manager of the Cape Town Community Television Collective.