Television viewers were left staring at blank screens on Saturday after the communications regulator raided the transmission site of four leading stations and switched off their signals.
Under heavy police guard, officials of the Communications Authority of Kenya forced their way into the site in Limuru from which NTV, QTV, Citizen TV and KTN broadcast their analogue signals for Nairobi and its environs and stopped transmission.
The decision by the regulator follows the Supreme Court ruling on Friday, which upheld December 31, 2014, as the deadline for analogue television broadcasting for Nairobi, disregarding an appeal by the three media houses for more time to prepare for the transition.
The switch-off denies over 90 per cent of Kenyan television viewers who depend on the four stations for news and entertainment their constitutional right of accessing information free of charge.
“…we regret to inform our viewers that our regular broadcasts are no longer on air. Despite the ruling of February 13, 2015, reinstating us the licence and frequencies for digital broadcasting, the CA has declined to allow us the requisite time to import our own transmitters and set-top boxes that will enable our viewers to receive our broadcasts on our own platform as provided by the Self-Provisioning Digital Broadcasting Licence granted by the Supreme Court.
“Our channels are, as a result, not available on pay TV or any digital platforms,” a message displayed by the four channels read.
In its ruling on Friday, the five-judge bench reinstated the licence that had been withdrawn from the three media houses — Nation Media Group, Standard Media Group and Royal Media Services — but failed to provide them with enough time to acquire the equipment required to start broadcasting on a digital platform.
On Saturday, officials from the Authority also confiscated transmission equipment worth millions of shillings.
They were operating under the authority of a court order issued by Limuru Senior Principal Magistrate G.H. Oduor on Friday that gave the Criminal Investigations Department a “search warrant and authority to seize and detain any equipment belonging to the stations”.
The move sparked outrage both from the public and political leaders.
“The Jubilee regime has thrown the entire country into information darkness. Those with no access to the expensive pay TV will never know what is going on in government and with fellow citizens.
“This is because the Jubilee regime is unwilling to arbitrate between a foreign firm and local, home-grown media houses over the distribution of digital frequency signals,” former Prime Minister Raila Odinga said in a statement to newsrooms.
“We are witnessing abdication of responsibility by a government on a scale never witnessed in our history. The abdication of responsibility is a result of the government being hellbent on protecting private interests in which its key members have interests, at the expense of the interests of the public.
“The Jubilee regime must learn and accept that Kenyans have seen the light and shall never agree to be taken back to darkness. We stand for the right to information and we will stand with Kenyans in demanding this basic right,” he added.
Senior Counsel Paul Muite, who has been representing the three media houses in the proceedings, said the regulator’s action was in violation of Article 34 (1)(a) (b) of the Constitution.
The article bars the State from “exercising control over or interfere with any person engaged in broadcasting, production or circulation of any publication or dissemination of information by any medium or penalise any person for any opinion or view or content of any broadcast, publication or dissemination”.
Mr Muite said the three stations, through their consortium Africa Digital Networks Limited, had already invested millions of shillings and other resources in preparation for the new broadcasting regime and were only asking for more time.
“NTV, KTN and Citizen TV have not said they won’t migrate or go digital but they sought time from CA to organise how they will acquire antennae, digital decoders and transmitters,” Mr Muite said.
'SHOULD RESPECT THE LAW'
CA director-general Francis Wangusi told the Sunday Nation on telephone that the Authority acted within the law and would not retreat on the push for migration since the country has an obligation to respect international treaties.
“We are not going to turn back. Everyone in this country must learn to obey the law. We respected the court’s decision when it stopped us from switching off the analogue broadcasting pending determination. Now we have that go-ahead and the media houses should respect the law as well,” Mr Wangusi said.
The regulator set the digital migration deadline for Nairobi on December 31, barely two weeks after the three media houses were allocated the frequency on which to broadcast their digital signal on December 15.
This means the media houses had only two weeks to order and import a transmitter (which is tailor-made for a specific frequency) as well as set-top boxes to distribute to their viewers ahead of the switch-off.
After failure to convince the regulator to agree to an extension, the media houses went back to court and acquired an injunction stopping the switch-off until the case is heard.
But, in the meantime, CA withdrew the licence and stopped the media houses from importing their digital transmission equipment into the country.
The move to switch off the stations’ analogue signal, even after disrupting their preparation process, is therefore, deemed unfair by the stations.
The global migration deadline is June this year.
Reporting by Vincent Achuka, Charles Wokabi and Richard Munguti