Kenyan Media Blackout | MIT Center for Civic Media

Kenyan Media Blackout

It was not until I checked my twitter feed that I realised a raging debate on the self imposed media blackout under the hash tag #mediablackoutke. Several local journalists wrote tweets to protest a ruling made in Kenya’s high court on digital migration. The judge had earlier dismissed the petition by the three leading media houses to delay the migration. In his ruling, he says that the deadline date was obtained through consensus since the three players were also part of the process.  Digital migration refers to the movement of broadcast transmission from analogue signals to digital signals. As per the ITU conference different member countries had to set up deadlines by which they would have the switch over.  It is important to note that Kenya became the second country to switch over to digital television broadcasting in the year 2009.  The deadline to completely cut off the analogue signal in Kenya has been a game of chess since. Every other party trying to checkmate each other.

Today’s media blackout was initiated by the three main broadcasters at 9:00pm local time. To put this into perspective , news shows are the most viewed since they are at prime time. It is only through news at 1:00pm or the 7:00pm Swahili news edition or the 9:00 pm English edition that politicians get their chance for some airtime. Across these three stations viewership is high at those hours hence a blackout at 9:00 pm would indeed cause some consternation. It was my expectation that if the three media outlets were indeed cut off by the regulator, perhaps then their live internet feed would still be running. This was not the case. The same message was played out on the live internet feed. Sadly the message shows how crafty the three outlets were trying to be. This lead to several people going ham on the three stations.

What went wrong?

 The inconsistency in the message led to interesting conversations on the so called blackout. The message shown on all the screens seems to state that the media houses were complying with the court order hence the blackout. Then the question arises, if they were truly complying with the court order shouldn’t the screens be showing the usual grey scale? How would one protest a shutdown while at the same time argue that all they are doing is complying with the law? In the public gallery, this could be seen to say that the state is shutting down the television stations.  This attempt seemed to seriously have failed at least among social media users leading to several questions being raised leaving the media even more exposed about their actual interests over the digital migration.

Do the three outlets have a case?

Yes and No. To better understand this, we need to rewind a few steps back in this chess game when the game just started. The Communications Commission of Kenya, the body regulating frequencies, gave the first digital signal named Signet to the state broadcaster. The Signet signal went ahead and launched. Meanwhile the state through the commission set out to make it easy for set up boxes to be made available. This process was not without issues. There were issues of insufficient boxes, the cost of acquiring the boxes amongst others.  A media campaign to inform citizens on the benefits of digital migration kicked in. Of course the three stations also had the commission as clients. The commission made payments to them to have their digital migration signals on air. It was not until six months ago, that some stations blatantly refused to air the digital migration adverts. Why the sudden change?

A second licence was issued to a Chinese investor, Pan Africa Network group. This was a competitive bidding process which the media outlets failed to take advantage of. The then Information and Technology cabinet secretary Bitange Ndemo, a champion of ICT in Kenya, advised the media houses to form a consortium to bid for the license after the major media houses all placed bids separately. This reveals another interesting dynamic with tales of rivalry between the media houses leading to abandoning of the consortium approach. It is reported that the fourth largest media house sent out invites to the other three to join in their bid but they all blatantly refused the offer. This is the same problem facing Kenya’s quest for commercial 4G licence from the regulator. The very same fights are being faced in the telecommunications sector. The regulator wants to prevent a situation where one player is dominant infrastructurally. In the meantime all the big three had signed up with some of the already existing digital frequency provider to air their channels on their free to air bundles.

The regulator then reiterates there will be no more digital frequencies being allocated as the ones in existence are not full in terms of capacity.  This puts them on a collision course with the large players who want to be allocated a third license. The commision informs them that the third licence will strictly be for a telecommunications consortium. This is inorder telecom companies that have been in take off mode awaiting for the 4G frequencies can launch. It is important to note here, Kenya’s largest telecommunication company, Safaricom intends to go into the pay tv market. This does not auger well for the dominant players. They head to the courts. So what exactly are the media’s arguments.

  1. Most people in Kenya do not have set up boxes and they are expensive

  2. There is a monthly subscription to view their free to air channels

  3. Less media freedom as the state can interfere with signal distribution

  4. Why was the signal given to a Chinese investor?

Several counter arguments have been provided against some of the arguments above. The cost of set up boxes has indeed come down since 2009 and will occur in future where television sets in use will become obsolete and purchasing digital television sets will be the norm. The monthly subscription is a fallacy to get people not into buying television converter sets. I did notice for instances where a digital subscription service was purchased, the free to air channels are still available.

There are valid points around media freedom, but I do not think that analog signals are any different. What makes media houses sure that the state may decide not to bomb their transmission tower? The investment angle is what I stand with the media companies. Having a Chinese investor access to all this content may not be ideal. In any case neither would I be comfortable that the three media companies if they had the licence would not be out to fulfill their interests.In a sense neither is immune from political or commercial interests.

Map showing Television distribution

A fourth estate disengaged with its audience

In my opinion, digital migration is indeed going to provide true competition to the media companies. Through digital migration the audience has a wider choice of channels to choose from. This is likely to bring about less viewership meaning less advertising. This of course leaves those seeking to maintain the status quo deeply disturbed. Content producers on the other hand are happy. Here they have a platform to share their content and advertisers could specifically target their content.

This has been Kenyan media’s worst year. From the coverage of the election, to coverage of the Supreme Court ruling on the election petition, to having breakfast with the president, to the coverage of the Westgate attack, then the media gagging media bill and now digital migration. Pleas from the audience to spruce up their broadcasting has been met with, “this is what people want and what sells”. The main stations are now losing relevance and given the possible entry of a telecommunication player this brings about a new dynamic.  The main thinking behind a media blackout was indeed ill thought. The phrase “cutting off the nose to spite the face” best describes that action. Moreover, their attempt to  blackmail may not work. In the meantime we await a PR war from both sides. What about their obligations to advertisers? Most are of the opinion that this “strike” will not last for more than two days. Given media's reliance on advertising. In the meantime, this provides Kenyans with possible alternatives and a chance for media discovery. If the alternative stations step up to the plate and appease the crowds it might be too late for the big three, akin to throwning the baby out with the bath water.