Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Not much more than a month ago, MultiChoice’s controlling shareholder, Naspers, was fighting back hard as details emerged of the sweet deal that MultiChoice had agreed with the Guptas’ TV channel in 2013, accusing the critics of trying to force it to bump ANN7 off the airwaves at DStv.

Now DStv has announced it will remove ANN7 from the DStv bouquet when its contract with the channel expires later in 2018, a move that is almost certain to cause fatal damage to ANN7 because it will lose its core revenue stream.

Few would mourn the demise of ANN7, which calls itself a
24-hour news channel but is in reality a propaganda channel for the worst elements of the Zuma-Gupta faction, making up the news shamelessly and providing some very malign and anti-democratic characters with a platform as "analysts". And even though the Guptas "sold" it to Mzwanele Manyi in 2017, the nature of the deal was such that control didn’t really transfer at all.

But tempting as it might be to celebrate ANN7’s demise, the move by MultiChoice is bad for democracy and competition.

Far from salvaging the reputation of MultiChoice and its parent, it serves simply to cast them in an even worse light.

The problem is not that DStv included ANN7 in its varied bouquet. It is not that ANN7 is owned by the Guptas or even that it peddles fake and irresponsible news (although there are obvious question marks about that, there have been only two cases at the Broadcasting Complaints Commission against ANN7).

Rather, the issue is that MultiChoice has been paying ANN7, which has a very small audience, more than R100m a year for the pleasure of hosting it on DStv and — that there have been strong suggestions that this deal was struck with the Guptas in 2013 because Naspers and MultiChoice were keen to influence government policy on the encryption of set-top boxes, which would not have been in MultiChoice’s interests.

MultiChoice said this week that there had been "mistakes" in its dealings with ANN7 but no evidence of corruption and acknowledged it should have responded earlier to the controversy around the channel. Rather disingenuously, however, it linked its decision to shed ANN7 with plans to bring in a new black-controlled news channel — something it should be doing anyway if it believes that is important. Disturbingly too, MultiChoice revealed that the R450m it pays annually to e.tv, which has five channels including news channel eNCA, was more than three times what it has been paying ANN7 — a disclosure that hardly pleased e.tv, given that these contracts are confidential.

Nor can it make other smaller news channels that receive not a cent from MultiChoice feel any better.

DStv, which has a monopoly on the pay-TV airwaves in SA, has chosen to get rid of one of the channels in its bouquet. The real reasons remain unclear but it is hard not to suspect that MultiChoice is simply trying to swim with the political tides. Now that Jacob Zuma and the Guptas are going, it has moved swiftly to try to curry favour with the ANC’s new leaders.

They will surely not be impressed by what is, in effect, an attack on freedom of speech by a dominant player that can call all the shots. DStv has a monopoly on pay-TV in SA and exercises enormous power over the market.

It cannot be allowed to abuse that. We may not like or trust ANN7, but freedom of expression and a diversity of views are important for political discourse and democracy.

MultiChoice has declined to publish its report on the ANN7 matter. If it wants to regain credibility, it must make that public.

Meanwhile, much more use should be made of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to sanction ANN7. The Independent Communications Authority, too, is investigating MultiChoice’s dealings with ANN7 and the SABC and it should do so publicly and thoroughly. The commission of inquiry into state capture could usefully take a look, too.