MILLIONS of Zimbabweans will lose free access to South African TV channels by mid-May after a court closed a signal loophole that had also been exploited by half a dozen other regional countries.
South African TV signal carrier, Sentech, was last week found by the Johannesburg High Court to be “wrongful, negligent and in breach” of its “duty of care” to regional TV channels for failing to encrypt its signal.
Botswana TV channel, eBotwana – a sister organisation to South Africa’s first free-to-air commercial television station e.tv – went to the High Court in Johannesburg last June to challenge Sentech’s apparent reluctance to secure the encryption on its Vivid digital satellite platform.
Sentech, which is state-owned, introduced Vivid decoders for South Africans who could not access its subscription-only terrestrial signal.
But millions of Zimbabweans, Malawians, Namibians, Angolans, Tswanas, Swazis, Sothos and Mozambicans were able to tap into the free channels by buying decoders supplied by two companies – Philibaos and Wiztech.
eBotswana general manager Dave Coles estimated that about 70% of Botswana’s population was watching the pirated SABC channels. This, he said, was “seriously damaging growth in the local broadcast, production and advertising industries through the loss of potential advertising revenue”.
Millions of Zimbabweans forced to watch only the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation TV channel had bought the cheap decoders which allowed them access to three SABC channels and to follow popular programmes such as Generations, Muvhango and Zone 14.
Zimbabweans still can access South African TV channels by subscribing to DTSV through MultiChoice, but few can afford the charges which start from US$10 per month rising depending on the number of channels.
Ambrose Sibindi of the Progressive Bulawayo Residents Association explained that it was easy to watch South African channels for free due to the signal loophole.
“People were buying the satellite dishes and the decoders, then get someone to connect it for them. In an instant, they had access to SABC 1, 2 and 3 although it was harder to get the sports channels,” he told the Voice of America’s Studio 7 last night.
Sibindi blamed the ZBC’s “monotonous” programming for millions of the city’s residents switching off to find alternatives.
He added: “The ZBC unfortunately became the mouthpiece of Zanu PF. You watch the news on ZBC and it’s the same thing repeated for two to three days, and the people naturally started switching off.”
He said the court ruling in South Africa could see a small fraction of those illegally tapping into the South African channels subscribing to DSTV, but said a large majority would be unable to due to the prevailing economic climate and low wages.
Sentech – which now faces a damages claim from eBotswana – must take “all reasonable steps necessary” to ensure that viewers in the region are prevented within three months, from pirate viewing of the SABC channels carried on the Vivid platform, according to the Johannesburg High Court ruling.
Sentech has the right to apply to the court for an extension provided it can show “good cause” why it such an extension would be justified.