Faith Muthambi: Summoned James Aguma to an urgent meeting
Faith Muthambi: Summoned James Aguma to an urgent meeting

Executives of the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) told Parliament on Wednesday that it was still considering how to proceed with a possible investigation into MultiChoice.

In November, the DA approached the regulator requesting that it conduct an inquiry into payments made by MultiChoice to the SABC and Gupta-linked ANN7, allegedly in exchange for political influence over government policy on digital migration, in the pay-TV operator’s favour.

Allegations, including a copy of minutes of a meeting held between MultiChoice and SABC executives in 2013, emerged in 2017, suggesting that the pay-TV operator would proceed with its multimillion-rand deal to include the SABC 24-hour news channel in the DStv bouquet, only if the government supported nonencryption of set-top boxes.

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi was implicated in the matter as she pushed through nonencryption, despite standing ANC policy at the time.

Set-top boxes are needed to decode the digital signal for television sets that do not have digital capabilities. Conditional access and encryption is crucial for pay-TV broadcasters, as it allows them to control who has access to their content.

Icasa executives, who appeared before Parliament’s communications portfolio committee to discuss the regulator’s annual performance plan, told MPs that the DA lodged the initial complaint in November against MultiChoice regarding its relationship with ANN7 and the SABC.

The allegation centred on suspicions of illegality in those relationships. The regulator then had to consider the complaint and also seek external legal advice as to the process to follow in dealing with the matter.

In February, Icasa sent a letter to MultiChoice, requesting its response to the complaint. The pay-TV operator responded by essentially objecting to the process and arguing that the complaint by the DA was flawed. Despite the objection, MultiChoice offered Icasa the opportunity to view the contracts/documentation in question at its premises.

However, Icasa responded in March, stating that the offer was unacceptable and the regulator was entitled in law to proceed with the process it was undertaking. MultiChoice then requested a meeting with Icasa.

The regulator had also received a letter in March from an unrelated party regarding MultiChoice/Naspers’s "undue influence on encryption policy in order to protect its dominance".

"The issues raised in the letter overlap with some of the issues raised in the complaint. Icasa is currently considering … the letter it received … in order to determine how to proceed with the matter," the regulator said.

Icasa also provided MPs with an update on the call for applications for an individual, commercial, free-to-air television broadcasting service and radio frequency spectrum licence, which was issued in February.

The Gupta-backed Infinity Media is one of players that had applied. Infinity Media owns the former Gupta-owned news network ANN7, which will be dropped from the DStv bouquet in August. Lobby groups have called on Icasa not to grant Infinity the licence, citing among others, its links to the Guptas

A notice inviting public comment on the received applications was published on March 13. The closing date for receipt of written representations was April 16. Applicants have until May 17 to respond to the written representations.

According to Icasa, all written representations and responses will be made available in the regulators library and on the website (except where confidentiality is requested and granted). The authority will hold public hearings with respect to the received applications by September 30, and a final decision on the licensing process is expected by March 31 2019.