01/02/2018 14:33 SAST | Updated 01/02/2018 15:02 SAST

Is MultiChoice Committed To Transparency Or Merely Opportunistic?

It is essential that the probe gets to the bottom of the issue of channel payments – and the reasons for these payments.

Gallo Images / Beeld / Wikus de Wet
The New Age and ANN7 proprietor Mzwanele Manyi during the announcement on the shareholding of his company, Lodidox, on August 30, 2017, in Johannesburg.

On Wednesday, 31 January 2018, MultiChoice announced that it would not be renewing ANN7's channel contract. Instead it would be looking to fund and support a new black-owned channel. MultiChoice argued that it would ensure that this new channel would contribute to diversity and ethical journalism.

Over the past 24 hours there has been an outpouring of comments on this decision - some supporting MultiChoice's decision to remove ANN7 from its DSTV satellite platform, while others have argued that it is an opportunistic move.

Those supporting the move have argued that ANN7 is a propagandistic channel and its removal is in the interests of ethical journalism.

Meanwhile, others have questioned the timing. MultiChoice is presently being investigated by the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) for alleged corrupt payments to ANN7 and also the SABC, involving channel agreements.

The argument here is that, among a number of issues, MultiChoice may be trying to downplay the probe by simply not renewing ANN7's contract.

It is important to carefully assess the situation.

Gallo Images / Beeld / Wikus de Wet
The New Age and ANN7 proprietor Mzwanele Manyi is seen with two investigative journalists, Pauli Van Wyk and Phillip de Wet during the announcement on the shareholding of his company Lodidox on August 30, 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. During the live television broadcast, Manyi revealed that he was the sole shareholder in Lodidox the shelf company he bought.

ANN7 history

The ANN7 24-hour news channel was launched in August 2013. It was launched by the controversial Gupta family, a family that has built strong business and political ties with President Zuma.

From the beginning the channel was dogged by controversy. It was accused of amateurish journalism and then later of bias – particularly in the lead-up to the firing of finance minister Pravin Gordhan. Here the channel was accused of propaganda to discredit Gordhan and to paint President Zuma in a favourable light. (It is important to note here that ANN7 has in fact only breached the BCCSA code twice.)

But this was not the only controversy – as mentioned above, controversies have swirled around pay-TV MultiChoice's channel agreements with ANN7 and the SABC. Important information came to light from the "Gupta leaks" emails. The emails revealed that MulitChoice paid ANN7 an original amount of R50-million a year, and then increased this to R141-million.

The leaks also pointed to the fact that MultiChoice made an upfront payment of R25-million in September 2015. The allegations were that these payments were linked to MultiChoice's lobbying efforts to influence government to agree to unencrypted set top boxes for the digital terrestrial television (DTT) migration project.

The money was allegedly paid to ANN7 after the Gupta family lobbied the president to transfer certain broadcasting powers to minister Faith Muthambi – powers that allowed her to make amendments to the digital migration policy. MultiChoice was strongly lobbying for unencrypted boxes, while rival television station eTV was lobbying for encrypted boxes.

Post the payments, the policy was amended to support non-encryption. When this information was revealed, the Democratic Alliance (DA) laid a complaint with Icasa, asking the regulator to investigate these allegedly corrupt payments, which also included payments to the SABC.

What needs to be done

Given this context, it is important for MultiChoice to show that its decision to drop ANN7 was not opportunistic. It is important to show that the reason was not because the channel is losing its power as President Zuma loses his power. It is important to show that MultiChoice is genuinely committed to transparency around the payments it made to ANN7 and the SABC.

Given this context, the Icasa probe becomes particularly important. It is essential that the probe gets to the bottom of the issue of channel payments and the reasons for these payments. MultiChoice owns 98 percent of the subscription market. Its influence on the media landscape is enormous.

It is critical that the editorial and content decisions it takes are in the interests of showcasing a diversity of quality, ethical journalism and content – and not for any other reason.

Kate Skinner is Executive Director of the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF)