Digitalizing the nation

One expectation placed upon the second growth and transformation plan is the changes it aspires to bring about to the media industry. The groundworks began three years ago with the government embarking on digitalization works – replacing analogue technologies with digital ones. Once the process is completed huge changes are expected, particularly in the broadcast sector with up to 22 TV channels offered to public or private actors. Adjacent to this efforts, draft policies and legislations are being prepared. In this exclusive interview with Mikias Sebsibe, Law and Advertisement Director at the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, Gizaw Tesfaye, explains the progress made so far in the digitalization project, what it brings to the media industry as well as sticking issues from a draft media legislations. Excerpts:

The Reporter: We know that the authority is currently preparing a draft proclamation that governs the media industry in Ethiopia. First of all, can you tell us what necessitated this new proclamation and what are the core issues that are addressed there?

Gizaw Tesfaye: Actually, the new media proclamation was prepared with the participation of all the major stakeholders in the industry and currently, it has been tabled in front of the concerned bodies. As you might know, recently, a number of countries including our own are migrating to the digital broadcasting system. And one of the prerequisites to make this transition is preparing the necessary legal framework. The transition to digital broadcasting brings with it different new services and hence the licensing procedure would have to be significantly different. This requires aligning the legal framework with these new changes and that is why the new proclamation was required.

Apart from furnishing the legal framework for the digitalization process, are there new provisions that will be introduced by the upcoming proclamation?

As I have said earlier, the main thing is the digitalization process and the associated changes that will be introduced to the licensing procedure. What we mean by that is in the current system (the analog system), a television broadcaster is expected to procure and install its own broadcasting infrastructure which it will use to air its content. This means, the broadcaster under the analog system has an integrated license for both operating a broadcasting infrastructure and prepare its own broadcast content. But, one of the advantages of a digital system is that a broadcaster doesn't have to worry about the broadcasting infrastructure; the technology allows for the joint use of one broadcast network by as many as 20-22 channels and radio stations at a time. Hence, there will be no need to license the broadcaster for both operating the broadcast network and preparing and airing a media content. As you can imagine, this has significant implication on the licensing procedure, not to mention its cost implication in terms of eliminating installation and maintenance cost of operating a broadcast network.

For instance, if we require, all the broadcasters to build their broadcast networks, the average cost of such an installation is close one billion birr and it will be quite expensive. On the other hand, if you look at the implication of a digital broadcast system, it also means that now the end users would be able to use their TVs or mobile phones to receive either a television channel, a radio program or use the internet and other data services. This also has significant implications to the regulatory body and its organizational structure.

But preparing the legal framework is not the only requirement to make the transition to the digital broadcast system; the infrastructural side is also quite important. How far have you traveled in this regard?

Here one has to keep in mind that the whole goal of making the transition to digital broadcast system is to multiply the number of broadcasters especially television broadcasters in Ethiopia. It is also true that under the digitals system the end use would be able to get 20-22 radio stations in one radio network. This space would be available for both public and commercial broadcasters opening up huge commercial opportunities to the latter. This undoubtedly increases the choice for the radio and television audience in the country. On the other hand, radio frequency which by its nature is a limited resource could also be assigned to other important purposes since the digital system can accommodate a number of channels and stations. At the same time, with the growing number of radio stations and television channels, the need for quality programing to fill the airtime will also increase across time. This in turn holds huge opportunities to the advertising and entertainment industry.

Now, with regard to building the network infrastructure, the national steering committee (digitalization) has given the Information Network Securities Agency (INSA) an exclusive mandate to oversee the process. Since taking the assignment, INSA has conducted a study to inform the process of setting the standard for the selection of the technology. Also, it has selected various technical designs and construction sites. Just last year, the agency has finally floated an international bid for the procurement of the technology after the steering committee approved the technological specification that was prepared by INSA. Currently, the agency is in the process of evaluating the bid document. This project will have to be solely dependent on external loan since there is no budget that was earmarked by the government to this project. And this partly contributed to the delay of the project. If all goes according to the timetable, we expect the technology procurement and installation work to be completed in the current budget year.

But some commentators claim that a possible misappropriation of resources is the reason behind the delay of the project; how do you react to that?

It is true that the project was meant to be completed during the first Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP I). However, there was no budget that was earmarked for this project specifically. So, when the national steering committee evaluated the progress of the project in 2013/14, it found out that the there was no financial resource that was allotted by the government to this project. Hence, the committee had to revise the project timetable accordingly. It then decided that the project will be completed in three years starting from the completion of the preparation and testing period. So, until know, what was done was only the preparation work; in terms of the legal framework and the network installation. Hence, allegation of the misappropriation of funds can’t carry weight since there is no budget allotment from the side of the government.

Let alone the funds that are allegedly embezzled in connection to the project, the procurement of the technology itself is expected to be bankrolled via a vendor-financing arrangement. With regard to the set-top box, based on a study that was presented to it, the government has decided to produce and distribute it locally. The only thing that the government will do is offer subsides to local producers in terms of duty-free privileges to import inputs.

Do we have local producers which has the capacity to produce these set-top boxes?

You have to know that, the transition process is primarily spearhead by the national steering committee which is pooled from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Cooperation (MoFEC), Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, Ethiopian Broadcast Authority, Government Communication Affairs Office and from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation. Under the steering committee, there are about five sub-committees which focus on five different tasks of the transition process.

In fact, the national steering committee has given the responsibility to the Ethiopia Broadcast Authority to oversee the production and distribution of the set-top boxes in addition to the legal aspect. So, since we received this assignment we have tried to conduct various studies and evaluate the capacity of local companies which are in the business of making broadcast equipment. This evaluation included actual field visits to see how they produce. In the process, we were able to see that most of these companies are now producing TVs and other broadcast equipment and hence has ample capacity to do the job. With regard to production sites, we have especial industry zones which are specifically assigned to such producers. So, we evaluated that we have ample local capacity to produce and importing it would be highly uneconomical. Not only this, we have also prepared a bid specification to procure locally produced set-top boxes and until now an encouraging number of companies has applied to take part in the production.

What is the overall estimate of this project; cost wise?

INSA, the agency that is responsible for the procurement and installation of new digital network infrastructure, has conducted a detailed study to this effect. If you think about it, given the current rate of television penetration in Ethiopia, there are still areas in the country which don’t have access to television and other broadcast outputs. So, INSA’s study has also taken this into consideration and the need to buy new transmitters to reach these areas. We also have to have one central head distributor if it is to be one central network; furthermore, there is also one state-owned enterprise to operate the network infrastructure. So, taking all these into consideration, the total estimated cost is expect to reach one billion birr. The transmitters will be used to gather transmissions from the various broadcasters into the central head distributors and then via fiber optics or satellite it will go to transmitters and then to the end user. So, there area lot of choices to be made for instance would it be better to use a satellite or fiber optics? Why? All these will have a bearing on the cost of the project. As I have told you earlier, financing would be accessed from foreign creditors and the preferred mode of financing would be vendor-financing. So, currently, they are evaluating the technical proposal.

So far, the only television broadcaster in Ethiopia is the government. And so far, the sole reason that is given was the digitalization process. But, we all know that this digitalization process is a fairly recent phenomenon, may be since the last four years. So, why is there no private television broadcasters in Ethiopia for the last twenty something years?

Basically, there is no effective restriction on the private sector to own a television station. To begin with, the broadcast technology (whether analog or digital) entails a huge capital outlay. And once the system starts to migrate to the digit arena, all the previous investments and infrastructures will completely be useless. This is not our decision, for your information; it is the International Telecommunications Organization (ITO) which decided that all countries should move to the digital system by 2015. So, knowing that we are making the transition to the digital system, it will not be fair to issue broadcast license to private broadcasters. That being the fact, actually, there was commercial broadcaster which came forward and requested a broadcast license. The case is also the same with the public broadcasters.

In GTP I, we had plans to issue around six public broadcast licenses but actually we ended up issuing only two (Addis Ababa and Amhara). But, after that, we interrupted issuing the licenses considering the consequence as a result of the transition process. So in effect, it was only the public broadcasters which have lodged formal request for broadcast licenses in GTP I. However, we are not concluding that there was no interest by commercial broadcasters all together. And once, the transition is made will be seeing a number of commercial broadcasters in the market.

As you have pointed out earlier, there will be two types of licenses that will be issued by your institution: the broadcast network administration license and the broadcast service license. And, the draft proclamation says that the former will be issued only to a state-owned enterprise; not to a private broadcaster. Some consider this to be a restriction by itself. What do you say to that?

Basically, there are two models in the digit transition process. One model is where the governments (broadcasters) build the broadcasting stations themselves and use the channels effectively. This is more suited to the advanced nations and stations since they have the finances to build the broadcast stations and use all the channels for themselves effectively. The second model that is more suited to the less developed nations and station is a system where one organization builds a broadcast network and the regulator will be in charge of assigning the channels to various broadcasters. This is important to avoid potential conflict of interest between the network owner (operator) and the broadcasters which work by acquired channels from the networks.

The authority will be involved in this to the extent of approving the actual rates which the operator charges when leasing the channels to broadcasters. In addition to that, the laws prohibits the operator of the network from broadcasting any sort of programming in its network and from airing any advertisement in any of the channels that it leased. Furthermore, the operator will not be in a position to censor any programming that is presented from the broadcaster and will be obliged to offer a standard picture quality for all channels.

Hence, these provisions would greatly reduce potential conflict of interest between the two. In the first model, both the broadcaster and the network operator could be one and the same. But, including the ITO a number of countries prefer to follow the second model where the broadcaster and the network operator are given different licenses. On top of that, if we see the experience of some African nations who have progressed well in the transition process, it is a government institution which owns (operates) the network infrastructure. For instance, in South Africa, the only television and radio network operator is Sentech, a government operator. So, we decide to make the operator a state-owned enterprise because, first of all, the cost of such an endeavor is quite high especially for the private sector. On the other hand, the concern about who will be using these channels (in terms of having adequate programming) after they were installed is another consideration when we decide to give the role to a government institution.

If capacity is the issue, what is logic of placing a legal restriction on the private sector to own and operate a broadcast network? Why not keep the option open?

As I have explained earlier, the basic consideration here is to avoid wasteful practice of building many network infrastructures; it would be a serious waste of resources. But if you are asking about the future, where there is the capacity to build and operate many network infrastructures, there is no reason why the law cannot be changed. However, for now, the chosen model is to use one network infrastructure and operate it with an independent network administrator. If you ask me, this would be in the interest of the broadcasters as well since they would have the means to focus on providing quality programming for their audience.

What about the need to make this organization a state-owned enterprise? Why does it have to be a profit making institution?

We have to see this carefully. Yes, this institution would earn income from leasing its channels to commercial and public broadcasters. And yes, it would be a profit making entity. However, what you have to know is this institution will not be established with a sole purpose of maximizing profit. For one, the right to have access to information is a constitutional right for citizens; and this institution would have the responsibility to uphold this right. Like any other participant in this industry, this entity would have to have a license to operate as a network administrator.

One of the licensing conditions then would be to have its channel leasing rates being approved by its supervisory board. In fact, the license would also require some considerations and condition to be taken into account when channel leasing rates are approved. So, the income it collects from the broadcasters in the form of channel leasing fees would not solely depend on profit maximization objectives; it rather is concerned with giving fair services to broadcasters.

After the completion of the digitalization process, especially in the GTP II, how many new television channels are expected to join the airwaves?

As I have told you earlier, we have selected best network distributor technology which has the capacity to host up to 22 television channels. This technology called DVB-T2 is currently the standard in Europe. So, in the GTP II period, we will have 22 television channels which would include some commercial television channels.

With regard to content, the draft proclamation also mentioned some measurement criteria such as inciting violence and threatening national security of the country. But, these criteria have always been open to interpretation. How are you planning to enforce this?

Including the current broadcasting services proclamation, the draft media law as well contains some issues that should not be entertained in broadcasting media. Generally, these contents should not be in contravention to the basic laws, rules and regulations of the country and should also refrain from inciting violence. These provisions came from the constitution of the country. So far, we have not encountered a major problem with regard to this provision. But, it doesn’t mean that it will not happen. A broadcasting outlet could be used to incite violence and unrest in the country. And I think Rwanda’s Libre des Mille Collines is a perfect example for this.

The proclamation also says that there will be a new code of conduct. So, what will this code bring to the table? And we know that both public and private media institutions are also working to establish their council and code of conduct, how are the two related?

We believe that the media should be a strong self regulatory institution. This is very important not only for the growth of the sector but for enforcing the code of conduct in the industry. Unfortunately, such a strong institution is not forthcoming until now. What was included in the proclamation was just that, as much as it is important to keep the legality of the broadcasting content, it is also important to make sure that the contents meet the professional standard that is observed internationally. But, it is not possible to detail all the professional standards on the proclamation. Now, the standard practice elsewhere is for the professionals association or media councils to draft the code of conduct; but in the absence of this, the regulatory body would have to fill the gap.

Now, what I am asking is the council’s code of conduct is in the process of being drafted. You on the other hand are getting ready to have another code. Are the two going to be integrated or one would replace the other?

No there will not be any overlap. If the media council is ready, this code of conduct would be drafted jointly with the council and all the major stakeholders. So until, the council is ready to takeover such tasks, the authority has the responsibility to fill the gap. But, this would be a broadcast code of conduct and it will mainly benefit the broadcast media.

Currently, the country is drafting its first ever comprehensive media policy. One of the issues raised there is the fact that the document is meant to ensure the supremacy of the revolutionary democracy political ideology which is espoused by the ruling party. This is considered to be a limitation on the constitutionally enshrined ideal of plurality of opinion in Ethiopia. What is your take on this?

Yes, the government communications office has written the draft document for what is going to be a comprehensive media policy in the future. Just from the get-go, I can say that the draft document is just zero draft and it requires a lot of stakeholder consultation and feedback. But, with regard to the points you raised such as the fact that it being named “developmental democracy mass media policy”, people can argue in so many different ways; but what I am concerned about is the advantages that this policy would bring to the industry. I believe a media would reflect the socioeconomic conditions of the country. And if that is not the case and if a media deviates from these norms, it is the public that rejects the media.

Now, look at what is going on in some broadcast institutions, the public is now asking what is the value of excessive coverage of Hollywood superstars, musicians or popular football starts? At the same time, the public is bothered because not so much attention is given to local problems. The fact that the local media is not doing its job in terms of giving coverage to the local good governance issues or does strong investigative journalism works. A number of these advanced nations and the media institutions there have started with practicing “developmental” journalism and media. What it means is nothing but being the watchdog of the development process.

The media should check whether the funds that are allocated to the development process are properly invested; it should investigate whether the quality that the public paid for has been delivered; the media should also see that these development endeavors are actually benefiting the public. But, this does not mean that, there is no entertainment. The advanced nations have now passed the stages of development and that they have transitioned to the liberal media spectrum. But for us, development is the issue.

But, the entire content of the policy is phrased in the way that any other media (those apart from the developmental media) should not be encouraged to function in the media industry.

The draft is not yet at the level where we can discuss the contents in detail. It first needs to be beefed up via stakeholder consultation. Apart from what you are mentioning there are a lot of things that the draft should include. So, it is just a work progress.