China's rampant expansion and aggressive investment in Africa's pay-TV industry the past decade to gobble up whatever reach and foothold it can get across the continent's nations - even in dubious government contracts damaging what little is left or exists of public broadcasting in Africa - is becoming clearer in growing scandals and controversies like the one between StarTimes and Ghana's government.
In a growing controversy in Ghana - in just one of several very similar deals that exist between StarTimes and other African countries and their digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasting plans - the public is becoming aware of how their respective governments have "sold out" their public broadcasting systems.
In Ghana that country's broadcasters' association has slammed what is happening as "a betrayal".
This has happened through allowing direct Chinese investment in the form of joint DTT partnerships - like in Zambia - and digital TV broadcasting waivers in exchange for TV "gifts" in what is supposed to be a commercial-interest free process, system and service.
StarTimes is battling Naspers' MultiChoice in several Africa countries outside of South Africa for market share and pay-TV audience penetration and in several countries entered into dubious and secretive contracts and agreements with public and state broadcasters to supply, run or help with the switch-over to digital terrestrial television (DTT).
StarTimes under StarTimes Media SA and On Digital Media (ODM) runs StarTimes under the StarSat brand in South Africa.
Now Ghana has suddenly woken up to a growing controversey involving StarTimes, the Chinese pay-TV company of CEO Pang Xinxing who constantly indulge African leaders with foreign visits to Beijing, China, besides taking a gaggle of African journalists for "educationals" to China and that is also active in Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, the DRC, Rwanda, and a string of other African countries' DTT switch-over process.
The Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA) has now sounded the alarm about StarTimes and the Chinese pay-TV operator's "10 000 villages satellite TV project" (of which 300 will be in Ghana), saying that StarTimes aggressive plan in conjunction with Ghana's government and its apparent blessing, is inconsistent with and damaging to Ghana's DTT migration process.
Besides the 300 village in Ghana, StarTimes already said it will do 300 similar satellite TV villages in Burundi, 300 villages in Guinea, 1 000 communities in South Africa, 6 000 individual households in 300 villages in Rwanda, and 5 villages in Nigeria.
This is the second time StarTimes is doing business with Ghana's government of Ghana on the same project after the initial contract signed in 2012 worth $95 million was cancelled in 2015 and given to Ghanaian owned K-Net who successfully executed the project for about $13 million less the StarTimes amount at $82 million.
Yet in July 2017, Ghana's government suddenly passed a resolution to waive tax on StarTimes in the form of a waiver on import duties, import VAT, multiple levies and inspection fees amounting to $3 million in respect of materials and equipment imported by StarTimes for TV in Ghana.
Ghana's government has said the StarTimes project is "helping our citizens to access TV information on national and international events and programmes that would educate and inform them; hence increasing their awareness and knowledge to improve their welfare".
Not so, says GIBA, warning Ghana that "the Agenda of StarTimes is not only aimed at profit or the indoctrination of Chinese culture - names, language, food, etc. - but a larger mandate to take over the control of the broadcast space in strategic African countries including Ghana, which is crucial for the China game."
"Whereas today, China does not allow foreign ownership of media and for that matter, and will not allow the African broadcast media the space to trade our African channels in their country. Why then should African states give our broadcast space in the fashion as we are experiencing at the moment?" says GIBA.
According to GIBA there has been no stakeholder consultation for the StarTimes project.
"GIBA is asking all Ghanaian patriots and rational thinkers, to join hands with the government to fashion out the means to selectively deal with the Chinese relationship for financing of other projects, separate from the current moves by the ministry of communications for the broadcasting sector."
'StarTimes deals with negatively impact broadcasting'
"We advise the government to back out of whatever deals it has entered into with StarTimes, which as earlier stated, will negatively impact broadcasting in our nation – Ghana," says GIBA.
"We sincerely ask that broadcasting should be left out of the Chinese agenda. GIBA will like to emphatically state that, it will resist all attempts by any individual or groups of individuals, who seek to set back the gains that the Ghanaian broadcast media have made over the years."
GIBA also wants to know why Ghana's government has neglected its commitment to migrate from analogue to DTT and instead support China's StarTimes and its direct-to-home (DTH) satellite initiative as a foreign private organisation "with a grant offering DTH satellite broadcasting in aid of the digital migration for Ghana?"
"It is equally curious why industry stakeholders would not be consulted over an initiative that will impact the entire industry?"
GIBA says StarTimes is allowed to grow its DTH pay-TV service in Ghana "under the pretext that it will facilitate the digital migration in that country, again through connivance with the people in authority, to push for the support of their reception equipment such as set-top boxes (STBs) and integrated digital TV sets, installed with Conditional Access (CA) modules and presenting the receiver device as the approved decoders for accessing digital broadcast contents in the country".
"To have their STBs cheaply imported into Ghana, they will have to present the satellite project as a grant to the nation in order to obtain tax waivers for the importation of their CA embedded reception devices (decoders and digital TV sets)."
"These reception devices, even if distributed as free materials, will only be aiding the businesses of the conditional access license holder."
"What new satellite service is StarTimes offering Ghana, if not to enhance their current commercial business and play on the ignorance of our law makers or by connivance of some elements in authority to populate the Ghanaian homes with their own decoder trading stocks under the pretext that, they are providing satellite broadcast services to 300 villages in Ghana?"
"We watched with great interest, the display of power but lack of technical knowledge in television transmission systems and operations, from our very own parliament of Ghana, as they rush through approvals for exemptions, dashing out our very needed taxes to the tune of over $3 million to StarTimes to build a digital satellite broadcasting infrastructure."
GIBA says "it is disturbing to have the only free-to-air (FTA) digital broadcasting platform which is the medium for the dissemination of information to the public and operations of mass media in the digital domain, to be controlled by an individual entity whose current business in the country is pay-TV broadcasting, and is already distributing licensed controlled conditional access decoders and digital television sets across the country in aid of their commercial business".
"If StarTimes is allowed to control both Ghana’s only digital television infrastructure and also the satellite space in the name of digital migration, Ghana would have virtually submitted its broadcast space to Chinese control and contents."
"Meanwhile, the nation of China is not prepared to grant even the tiniest of broadcast space of any kind to any broadcast channel from Africa into their country."
StarTimes deal dangerous to Ghana's media industry - MFWA
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) supports Ghana's independent broadcasters, saying that StarTimes's DTT plans are threatening and dangerous.
“The StarTimes affair is very dangerous for the survival of our local media industry. Let’s oppose it with full force," Sulemana Braimah, MFWA executive director wrote on Facebook. THE MFWA has urged Ghana's goverment to be transparent in its secretive deals with StarTimes controversial DTT programme in Ghana.
"We have a situation where a tax waiver is granted to a company that apparently is a competitor, because we know StarTimes is operating Max TV," Sulemana Braimah said in an interview on Ghana television, adding that "there is one thing that is clear and it is that there hasn’t been transparency".
StarTimes and StarTimes Ghana so far hasn't issued any public statement on the matter.
'China-lizing' Africa's digital TV space
Dubbed "China-lizing" Ghana's digital TV spehere, many in Ghana as well as the TV industry across Africa are now asking questions while Ghana's government and communications ministry is trying to downplay the growing scandal.
Meanwhile George Andah, Ghana's deputy communications minister, has said that the DTT agreement with StarTimes is a condition for Ghana to secure a $19 billion loan from the China EXIM bank.
George Andah in a statement said GIBA's "concern seems to be misplaced because they feel StarTimes is going to manage the platform and that it is going to be StarTimes that is going to be putting its conditional access or its middleware and that is not the case."
Ghana's communications ministry in a statement said "The ministry wishes to state emphatically that it has, in no way, committed to, and does not intend to hand over the management of the DTT infrastructure platform to any third party".
Meanwhile many in Ghana are now openly wondering why Ursula Owusu Ekuful, Ghana's communications minister is blatantly siding with StarTimes and China, vociferously defending China and StarTimes over Ghana that she is supposed to represent.
In a blistering rebuke, Ursula Owusu Ekuful slammed GIBA in radio interviews, saying Ghana's broadcasters can't dictate to Ghana's government what to do.
Asked why she failed to engage and communicate with GIBA, Ursula Owusu Ekuful, said it was because she doesn't understand what their concerns were.
In a TV interview the caustic Ursula Owusu Ekuful slammed GIBA again, saying "they are not financing this process and they cannot sit there and dictate what government does in this process".
Apparently hasn't seen GIBA's open letter, saying "I am still struggling to find out exactly what GIBA’s concerns are so we can address it".
Gifts, trips and selfies
Meanwhile StarTimes has donated heavily to the Foundation of Ghana's first lady Rebecca Akufo-Addo, The Rebecca Foundation, with Rebecca Akufo-Addo that visited Beijing last month to receive gifts from StarTimes and Pang Xinxing.
On her Facebook page Rebecca Akufo-Addo last month wrote "Earlier today at the StarTimes Corporation in Beijing, China I was excited to see the unveiling of the design, of a football kit to be used by Ghanaian children, in a sports exchange programme later this year."
"Last year my foundation, the Rebecca Foundation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Licang District Experimental School, in Qingdao, to establish an exchange programme, between Ghanaian and Chinese schoolchildren beginning this year."
"I got a tour of the impressive Star Times Corporation by the Founder Mr. Pang XingXing Who through his impressive global company is supporting the children with sports kits which includes, jerseys, socks, bags and water bottles. I am most grateful for the support and look forward to an effective collaboration."
Rebecca Akufo-Addo's Rebecca Foundation in a statement now says "StarTimes has never been, at any time, a partner of the foundation, as has been suggested. The Foundation is however very grateful to StarTimes for offering football kit and to be donated through the foundation".
"StarTimes offered to provide football kits for the children because of their association with Ghana football. It is worth emphasising that neither the first lady nor the foundation has any role to play in any engagement between StarTimes and the government of Ghana, either directly or indirectly."
Sam George, a Ghana member of parliament and a member of that parliament's communications committee has warned that Ghana is at risk of flooding its media landscape with a lot of Chinese content and production as has been the case in several African countries.
"Anybody who has done marketing 101 will know that what StarTimes is doing is building market penetration. They are going into the most deprived areas where they may not have DTT access as we sit now, because we have not rolled out full DTT access, but they are trying to capture that market."
MP Alhassan Suhuyini said Ghana president Nana Akufo-Addo may be compromised when it comes to financial dealings with StarTimes.
"In the case of StarTimes, I am beginning to suspect that perhaps, the president has compromised himself in a way."
"I say so because we have all heard and read about the president’s itinerary when he went to China recently and in one of his engagements, he had a special meeting with the president of StarTimes. We have also seen donations that StarTimes has made to the wife."
"I would like to challenge the President to do something not just for his own image but for the benefit of the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association. The need for the president’s intervention is also because the communications ministry has proven to be dishonest and scandal-prone," said Alhassan Suhuyini.
"The communications ministry is not being honest and that is even making matters worse."
Ghana's former communications minister, Dr. Edward Omane Boamaha, has slammed Nana Akufo-Addo administration of allegedly engaging in unfair trade practices with its tax waiver for StarTimes, demanding that Ghana's government "immediately ensure mutually beneficial engagements with all stakeholders in order to recalibrate the pathway for the DTT process".
He called on Ghana's government to "publish any agreements entered into with StarTimes on the 300 villages project; and if none exists, take urgent steps to ensure appropriate regulatory oversight without providing undue advantage to StarTimes which is already an actor in Ghanaian broadcasting".
On Saturday 22 September Ghanaians were apparently "thrilled" to a Chinese culture feast and art at the forecourt of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.
StarTimes organised it.
The event dubbed "Beijing Top TV Drama & Movies Broadcasting Season in Africa" is apparently a campaign to promote cultural exchanges and cooperation between China and Africa.
Guo Ziqi, StarTimes vice-president attended and said during the launch that the Chinese programming will contribute to the strengthened friendship between Ghana and China. The Chinese Ambassador to Ghana, H.E Wang Shiting also attended and said Chinese TV dramas and movies have become an important new "cultural bridge".
In other African countries like Zambia a similar controversy and growing scandal has been brewing just like in Ghana, around StarTimes and that country's DTT switch-over process.
StarTimes Zambia for instance entered into an agreement with Zambia's government not to manage or control their DTT but to build it for them, although the loan agreement contains a clause that if the Zambia government defaults, the Chinese will manage and control the DTT system for some years.
In Rwanda, StarTimes this week said it plans to use its DTH service to "boost Sino-Rwandan cultural exchanges".