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Yunus Carrim drops MultiChoice digital TV bombshell

Read time 4min 30sec
Former communications minister Yunus Carrim.
Former communications minister Yunus Carrim.

SA’s digital terrestrial television (DTT) drama came full circle yesterday, when former communications minister Yunus Carrim laid the blame for its failure on MultiChoice’s doorstep.

Carrim dropped the bombshell at the Zondo Commission State Capture Inquiry yesterday, accusing the giant pay-TV operator of leading a sustained campaign in ensuring the DTT policy in relation to set-top boxes collapsed.

The former minister threw a cat among the pigeons at the inquiry, saying the continental pay-TV channel bullied state broadcaster SABC into adopting a policy position which strengthened MultiChoice’s monopoly on broadcasting in South Africa.

MultiChoice has denied Carrim’s allegations.

Carrim told the inquiry that MultiChoice took a hard-line stance against the rollout of signal encryption. Had encryption progressed, other broadcasters would have entered the pay-television market, creating massive competition for MultiChoice, he said.

“Koos Bekker [Naspers chairman] is behind it as I’ve repeatedly said. He used Calvo Mawela, the current MultiChoice CEO, Imtiaz Patel (MultiChoice chairman) and others to do his bidding. Nowhere in law or the constitution does it say that MultiChoice could have done what it actually did.”

According to the former minister: “The meeting occurred in March 2014 in Tshwane. Initially, Mr Bekker focused on Naspers and how much contribution they made to this country.

“We had the first meeting, where his primary preoccupation was he wanted to tell me that the facilitation process was very poor and I kept the door open because he is a very important man.”

He continued: “At some stage, I said ‘Mr Bekker, you have done well but you control 98% of the pay-TV market; you must allow for competition’. He then said to me ‘give me three names of black people that I must bring into the sector’. I said, you cannot choose your own competitors; it is policies and regulations that must decide.

“It also came to my attention that Naspers got the sole licence in 1988 to establish M-Net … and they were very close to the National Party. I suggested to Mr Bekker that even if you get competition, it will take a long time for someone to be the real competitor to MultiChoice.”

DTT was meant to bring with it a host of benefits, including more channels and additional spectrum that can be used to rollout connectivity in rural areas. However, the country missed the International Telecommunication Union's mid-2015 deadline, which is when it stopped protecting analogue signal.

Yesterday, Carrim told the inquiry the policy on control was consistent with the African National Congress's Mangaung resolutions, and government's policies on encouraging competition in monopolised sectors, empowerment, job-creation and advancing the needs of the poor and disadvantaged.

However, MultiChoice had a different view, arguing that an unencrypted set-top box option has multiple benefits to South African television viewers.

At the time, the satellite television provider alleged Carrim had disregarded its views, adding: “It is clear that, like everywhere else in the world, an unencrypted option is not only the best low-cost option in terms of initial outlay, but is cheaper in terms of ongoing costs to consumers.”

Carrim at the State Capture Inquiry yesterday accused MultiChoice of bullying, including that a R553 million deal between MultiChoice and the SABC “was all about ensuring there was no signal encryption in South Africa”. Secondly, he alleged MultiChoice “inserted a controversial clause into its SABC agreement” which ensured the public broadcaster followed the pay-TV giant’s stance on encryption.

In addition, he said, the SABC changed its official stance “from supporting encryption to opposing it” – all within a matter of weeks, with former SABC staffer, COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, siding with the pay-TV firm: “Hlaudi Motsoeneng signed the deal without the approval” and consent of chief executive officer Lulama Mokhobo.

During his testimony, Carrim said he was warned on a few occasions that opposing MultiChoice’s stance on encryption would have dire consequences for him. He said while there was no direct reference to what the risks were, he understood it to mean he would be fired as a minister for supporting encryption.

Subsequently, Carrim was fired and replaced by Faith Muthambi when former president Jacob Zuma announced his new cabinet in May 2014.

Joe Heshu, MultiChoice group executive for corporate affairs, told ITWeb: “MultiChoice has noted that Yunus Carrim confirmed under oath in his submission to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry today that he cannot attest to having personal knowledge of any fraud or corruption in respect of the SABC/MultiChoice agreement.

“Carrim’s allegations concerning MultiChoice and some of its officials are baseless. MultiChoice and its officials deny these allegations. We have informed the Zondo Commission that we will respond to the allegations made against us in due course and reserve all of our rights.”

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