ZNBC director general Richard Mwanza on Sunday claimed that the partnership between the public broadcaster and Chinese Top Star is the best for Zambia.
But Ministry of Information sources say it is surprising that the government mysteriously gave the digital television tender to Star Times despite a legacy of abnormalities with even more dire consequences to the broadcasting industry in Zambia.
And the Zambia Union of Broadcasters and other Information Disseminators have disclosed that information on the joint venture between ZNBC and Top Star is scanty, adding that the deal has unsettled ZNBC workers.
On February 9, The Mast reported that the government has given ZNBC to a Chinese company over a US$273 million digital migration loan obtained just before the August 11 general elections.
According to sources, the agreement between ZNBC and China’s Top Star, which is being called a joint venture, would see the public broadcaster cede revenues for 25 years to service the US$273 million loan.
Appearing on ZNBC TV’s Sunday Interview, Mwanza said the public broadcaster was too financially susceptible to carry out digital migration without backup.
“Star Times, like I mentioned, is the contractor who will be putting up the digital migration. To do this digital migration, it’s not cheap, let alone the capital cost is colossal! But once you put up this network, to operate it is even more expensive. So, ZNBC went into a joint venture with Star Times where we formed a company called Top Star Communications Limited [and] this is the company that will run the network. In running the network, they will be able to generate some money for operations but more so, generate some money to pay back the loan,” Mwanza said.
He noted that Star Times did not give anybody a loan but that it was the Chinese government, through Exim Bank, that gave the loan to the Ministry of Information to facilitate the digital migration project.
“In facilitating the project, the way it will be paid back is that we will have a special purpose vehicle called Top Star – they will manage the network and this is how the loan will be paid back. There is no taxpayers’ money involved…It’s a 25-year loan and I’m just positive that maybe within 15 years, if all goes well, we could pay back this loan. I mean, look at the mobile sector, these people make a lot of money and if we can produce very good films and we have more subscribers, definitely we can pay back that in a very short space of time,” Mwanza explained.
When asked by the programme host, Grevazio Zulu, to plainly clarify whether or not ZNBC had been sold, Mwanza responded: “Let’s be serious; do you think if ZNBC was sold I would be here laughing? If ZNBC had been sold, I would not sit here. It hasn’t been sold [and] so whoever is telling you that ZNBC has been sold…”
He further stressed that Star Times and ZNBC were simply shareholders in Top Star.
“Star Times has 60 per cent shareholding while ZNBC has 40 per cent shareholding in a company called Top Star. ZNBC is right now struggling to operate the analogue network and you need support otherwise it will be a white elephant! You install a US$273 million network and fail to operate it? Imagine!” Mwanza noted, adding that the role of the Zambian government in the deal would only be to support the parastatal, ZNBC.
“So, this joint venture will help us to maintain the network, make money and pay back the loan. This arrangement is the best for the country!”
He also indicated that ZNBC’s partnership with Star Times would not jeopardise the former’s long-time agreement with MultiChoice.
ZNBC offers free-to-air MultiChoice channels through GOtv.
Meanwhile, Mwanza confessed that ZNBC no longer enjoyed its past broadcasting monopoly in Zambia.
“In the past, we used to talk about ZNBC coverage and monopoly [but] it’s not possible now to talk about that monopoly [because] if you’re in Chipata as ZNBC, even Prime TV will be there in Chipata and if they have good programmes, people will go to Prime TV and not ZNBC. So, we have to be more aggressive than we used to be-content is key,” said Mwanza.
Star Times, which has formed a joint venture with ZNBC called Top Star, is not unfamiliar with government controversy.
In Ghana, Star Times is currently engaged in litigation with that country’s government over a cancelled digital terrestrial TV contract.
In Nigeria, Parliament last December challenged Top Star’s joint venture with the Nigeria Television Authority signed in 2009 aimed at increasing content, building a terrestrial wireless, digital television system and operating a pay television service.
The partnership saw Star Times gaining effective control of the entire NTA
infrastructure and a 70 per cent shareholding in the joint venture, with the Nigerian telecaster getting 30 per cent.
Nigeria’s Parliament believed the deal was reached at fraudulently and members of parliament called for the investigation of Star Times.
“The house notes with concern the NTA which has provided the entire
infrastructure for the joint venture in addition to accepting the
responsibility of assisting SCNTL to implement almost all the
responsibility in the agreement was allotted only 30 per cent of the shares
while SCNTL, despite its scant contribution, was allotted 70 per cent of the
shares,” the MPs averred.
The house was also concerned that the joint venture agreement was grossly lopsided against the NTA which also ceded the intellectual property of the deal
to Star Times “thus endearing a master servant relationship between
the NTA and Star Times”.
And in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Star Times’ operating license
was revoked after the company illegally used the public frequency for
Uganda had mid last year equally halted a tender given to Star Times to run the digital terrestrial TV migration for the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation as the deal was giving it majority control of the country’s television space.
The Inspector General of Government later cleared the proposed leasing of the national digital terrestrial television. JC/News