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Arab spring prompts a new wave of Free-To-Air licence liberalisation in North Africa

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Arab Spring prompts a new wave of Free-To-Air licence liberalisation in North Africa but still a hard core of “hold-outs” in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Arab Spring has provided much needed momentum for Free-To-Air broadcast liberalisation in North Africa. The pace of change has been matched in Sub-Saharan Africa where the domestic airwaves are opening up to something more than Mr President TV and satellite Pay TV for the well-heeled elite, with the exception of North Africa where Satellite TV is a more democratic affair. Russell Southwood looks at those that have now got their foot on the accelerator and at the traffic jam at the back of the queue.

Free-To-Air TV broadcast liberalisation is one of the litmus tests of freedom of expression and the desire to see a country’s economy develop. Allowing more than one mass channel for sending and receiving information and allowing commercial advertising into the market both change the communications dynamic in a country.

Privately-owned TV channels also imply the weakening of the “direct-line” access from the President to the state broadcaster’s Director-General or News Editor. The private owner might be a friend (or close associate) of the President but friends can always fall out.

Two North African countries have decided to go cross this line: Tunisia is to introduce 5 new private TV and Algeria will open itself up to private Free-To-Air broadcast stations in 2012.

In Tunisia, the National Forum for the reform of information and communication (in French, L’Instance nationale pour la réforme de l’information et de la communication – Inric) recommended in a statement issued September 7, 2011, that five new TV licences be granted to: Tahar Ben Hassine (El Hiwar Ettounsi), Mohamed Hannachi (Golden TV), Mohamed Moncef Lem-Kachar (Khamsa TV), Nasr Ali Chakroun (Ulysses TV), Issam Kherigi (TWT).

The Forum also recommended, in the same statement, the granting a license to create a public sports channel (via DTT) under the supervision of the Establishment of Tunisian Television (In French, l’Établissement de télévision tunisienne – ETT). The Forum recommended that these authorizations should be granted only to individuals and that they cannot be transferred in any manner to third parties.

Tahar Ben Hassine already edits a service of the same name from London, while Mohamed and Mohamed Moncef Lemkachar Hannachi are owners of a local audiovisual production company. The other two lucky winners, Nasr Ali Chakroun (Ulysses TV) and Issam Kherigi (TWT) are respectively general manager of a company specialized in IT (3S Globalnet), and director of a production company, Spad (Société de production audiovisuelle).

Tunisia had – even before the Arab Spring revolution – two public channels: Wataniya 1 and TV21 and two private channels: Hannibal TV and Nessma TV.  According to the Tunisian news agency, TAP, 33 requests for new TV channels have been filed, but only five licenses for the establishment of five new TV channels have been allocated.

Moreover, the lawyer in charge, Sihem Ben Sedrine, said that RTCI  will get a provisional license to create its own radio station (Radio Kalima), but had not yet obtained the final license. Radio Kalima’s lawyer have been coing and going to Inric headquarters for a specification that is not yet ready.

In Algeria, the local press has recently announced that private broadcasters will be licensed in 2012: The independent daily El-Watan, the Arabic El-Khabar and L’Expression all carried stories to that effect. Since 1962, state-run ENTV has had an almost monopoly on the national TV landscape. Except as in most of North Africa, there is widely distributed satellite TV with many Arabic and European channels.

The CEO of El Khabar, Zahreddine Smati, had already informed its editorial team before announcing its intention to start a TV station to the public, while El-Watan announced ‘El Watan-TV’ and a radio station loud and clear in its Wednesday edition. The French-language daily L’Expression has announced that its management will launch "Shems TV" (TV Soleil). Beur TV’s CEO Réda Mehigueni also wants to position itself on the Algerian market. ETRHB group seems to have taken several steps ahead of future competitors. Since 25 August 2011, a website – www.dzairwebtv.com – was launched.

The Algerian government confirmed last Monday the opening of broadcasting licences through new laws reforming politics and media in the country. According to a 2008 study from French Médiamétrie that has an office in Algiers, 14 to 16 million Algerians watch foreign television against 8  to 10 million Algerians who follow ENTV programmes, which household penetration rate is about 23%.

Meanwhile in Sub-Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe is dragging its heels and seeking to avoid giving any kind of licences that compete with the Government-controlled broadcast media. The Government appeared to be moving cautiously towards radio liberalisation when it called for applications 4 months ago but studiously avoided offering private TV licences. However, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe has not yet responded to the 15 or so applications it received for radio licences.

So the roll-call of those with only one Government Free-To-Air TV station is shortening but not quickly enough. It currently stands at 19 countries: Algeria (see above); Cape Verde (private TV station piloted); Chad; Central African Republic; Comoros; Djibouti; Equatorial Guinea; Ethiopia (reports of 8 new private TV stations in 2011 but no sign yet with only 3 months to go); Eritrea; Gambia; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Lesotho; Libya (assumed to be coming soon); Mauritius; Rwanda; Sao Tome; Seychelles; and Zimbabwe.

The next step is to open up the foreign ownership restrictions which effectively make it difficult to attract external investment and too often restrict ownership to the President’s family (see Angola), friends or hangers on. But more that another day….

Source: balancing act http://www.balancingact-africa.com

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