June 17, 2015 was the date set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for countries in Europe, parts of the Middle East and Africa to finalize the migration from analogue to digital television broadcasts. This date purposefully coincided with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. The transition from analogue to digital, which optimizes the use of frequencies, has been widely presented as having the potential to diversify the choice of audiences across the continent. Despite the increased use of digital devices to access online media, television remains a staple in the media diet of millions of Africans.
Only a limited number of countries in Africa–such as Mauritius, Tanzania and Rwanda–have been able to switch off analogue television signal completely. Many others, including South Africa, Zambia and Namibia, have only partially implemented digital terrestrial television or DTT. And, a few, such as Burundi and Chad are just beginning to explore ways to get the migration started. As in so many other infrastructure projects over the last decade, governments in the continent have turned to China to find affordable options to complete the switchover. And one company stand out in the crowd – StarTimes – which has been involved in the process of digital migration in more than half of African countries.
The presence of Chinese media and telecommunication companies in Africa is part of Beijing’s “going out policy.” Operations have increased, but they have also diversified. Once exclusively focused on propaganda work through the likes of Radio Peking, Chinese corporations and State agencies nowadays are involved in five key activities: content production, as in the case of Xinhua, China’s State news agency that provides content to many local media houses; content distribution, like the Chinese television soap operas that have been popping up on Africa’s public broadcasters since 2012; infrastructure development, led by telecom giants Huawei and ZTE; professional training at Chinese universities and Party institutes; and, direct investment, such as the 20% acquisition of South Africa’s Independent Media by a group of Chinese investors.
StarTimes’ operations span across all these activities, covering all aspects of the digital television sector. The company builds and updates broadcasting networks; it sells the set-top-boxes needed to watch digital TV; it acts as a signal distributor, often through public-private partnerships with national broadcasters; it provides pay-TV services through satellite and DTT; it creates, buys and/or dubs content that it then distributes through its multilingual television channels; and, it trains personnel hired locally in the thousands. In some countries, StarTimes has a quasi-monopoly in all these activities; in others, its presence only involves one or two.
The most well-known actors in Africa-China media engagements, CGTN Africa (formerly CCTV Africa) and China Daily are under direct supervision of the State and/or the Party. StarTimes, for its part, is a privately-owned company – although it benefits from a particularly close relationship with the Chinese leadership. These bonds with the Party and the State were presumably built by its founder, Pang Xinxing, when he was working at State-owned media companies in the 1970s and 1980s. Pang is often seen travelling alongside high-ranking Chinese delegations in the continent and he openly met with two dozen African heads of state and government. Take the case of São Tomé and Príncipe, a country with which China had no diplomatic relations from 1997 to 2016. Less than a year after the resumption of relations, Pang was in São Tomé to close a deal that would see StarTimes leading the digital migration in the archipelago.
This cosiness with political elites, paired with an opaque corporate culture, has brought resentment towards StarTimes’ operations in multiple countries. In Kenya, when StarTimes was selected as one of only two signal distributors for DTT, all major commercial TV stations protested vigorously and imposed a signal blackout for weeks. In Ghana, StarTimes has had to face court battles over public tenders. And, in Mozambique, the fact that it went into a business partnership with the late Valentina Guebuza, the daughter of former president Armando Guebuza, put StarTimes at odds with many.
StarTimes’ big selling point has always been its affordability, and this applies to all potential clients. When selling its services to governments, it is often able to offer the lowest bids alongside long-term, low-interest rate financing provided by China’s Exim Bank. At the consumer level, it offers some of the lowest prices for pay-TV, it provides relatively inexpensive decoders and, more recently, has begun free satellite dish installations in rural communities where DTT was out of reach. With this multipronged strategy, in 2016, the company claims to have reached 10 million subscribers.
Content also sets apart StarTimes from its two largest competitors in the continent, Naspers’ GOtv and DStv (South Africa), and Vivendi’s Canal+ (France). While all three companies carry mostly channels that could be found in virtually any other pay-TV service elsewhere (from the BBC to Nickelodeon and MTV), StarTimes is unique in its offering of Chinese content (movies and TV series), some of which is dubbed in Hausa, Swahili, French, English and Portuguese and, more recently, Yoruba. The fact that StarTimes is authorized to distribute Chinese cultural products overseas, a “privilege” only previously reserved to State-controlled media, showcases the trust that Pang’s company has built with the authorities to carefully select content that will be in line with Beijing’s interests.
In its infancy, digital television was predicted to have a transformative impact worldwide. The increased space for new channels would bring about new voices – “democratize the airwaves,” was a commonly used catch phrase – and it would contribute to break the hegemonic dominance of US-based corporations in the media sector. The reality seems to be otherwise. As media scholar James Curran argues, the projected transformations, including diversification of capital, plurality of points of view and empowerment of minority groups to name a few, have not taken place.
The case of StarTimes presents several challenges to our understanding of media flows and contra-flows. StarTimes does indeed bring a distinctively new voice to Africa’s television industry – that of China. However, this is not a free-flowing voice, but one that operates under the constraint and supervision of the Chinese government, a one- party State. With its growing footprint in Africa, China is now capable of making itself heard. The same cannot be said of African voices, narratives and stories in China’s mediascape.
* Digital Africa is a collection of posts exploring ‘African Media in the Digital Age,’ also the subject of an International Communication Association Preconference held at Stanford University in May 2017. The posts were compiled and edited by Toussaint Nothias, a lecturer in the Center for African Studies at Stanford University.