Last week, Rwanda hosted the 11th General Assembly of the African Union of Broadcasting (AUB), which drew participants from over 40 countries to deliberate on issues surrounding the broadcasting business landscape.
The meeting was graced by President Paul Kagame and the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Ahmad Ahmad. The New Times' Julius Bizimungu sat down with Dr Kwame Akuffo Anoff-Ntow, the outgoing president of the Union to talk about the outcomes of the meeting, his tenure and the unfinished business.
Below are excerpts;
Members of the African public broadcasting agencies from over 40 countries have been here in Kigali. What were the main concerns and issues emerging from the deliberations?
What has become clear is that the issues confronting us are identical. The issue of football rights is a vexed question that we need to address, because we all share the same sentiments about it.
This is the reason why the president of CAF [Ahmad Ahmad] was invited to the meeting. We had occasion to speak to him and tell him what our concerns were.
The question of digital migration is also a question that we believed we could jointly address. Another concern was about funding, and we agreed that this cannot be looked at in isolation. This is what mainly constituted our discussions.
It was not just an opportunity for us to share ideas, but it was also another chance to seek best practices.
During your tenure as president, what would you say were the biggest challenges facing African public broadcasters?
When I took over the presidency, there were a couple of projects that needed to be done. Critical among them was the digital terrestrial television migration, which we are still [working] on.
However, there were other important programmes like sharing video content through putting in place a platform that would make it possible for us to share content, and getting involved in specific projects that would bring the Union together.
These were really the critical projects that concerned many broadcasters in this changing media landscape. But there are other issues that we needed to look at in terms of forging closer collaboration among broadcasters. There was also a big question about funding, and this had everything to do with efficient service delivery. Football rights acquisition was another big concern.
How well positioned is Africa’s public broadcasting media in confronting continental issues such as immigration and changing the narrative on Africa?
We recognise as AUB members that public broadcasters in Africa have not engaged on the subject efficiently. Clearly, there are reasons why it is the way it is.
When you are doing investigative journalism or delving beyond day-to-day news narrative, it takes time, expertise and resources. You cannot, therefore, bring urgency to a matter of that magnitude because it requires extensive research, significant amount of resources, as well as special expertise.
For that reason, there is a certain deficit in terms of human resource, but also, more importantly, lack of economic resource. The public broadcasters do not have the same kind of resources as CNN or AlJazeera have.
But we notice that it is not money that is always a problem, but it is a lack of collaboration. It is possible for us to coordinate as a team; we can get a reporter from Ghana, a Cameraman based in Nigeria, a script writer from Rwanda, put our energy together and explore the subject matter from different perspectives.
We came to a conclusion that money could be a serious factor that sets us back, but that is not the most important. Rather the willingness to collectively explore the subject matter.
At the meeting, it was clearly mentioned that there are fierce battles over Digital Terrestrial Television technology within the African audio-visual landscape. Has the General Assembly suggested any sustainable solution to deal with these battles?
The battles are many; there are some which are within control and there are others which are beyond us. The ones beyond us are resources that you require to be able to do the migration. It [the process] is capital intensive and only government can find that kind of capital.
For us as broadcasters, our interest lies in whether we are prepared to be able to adjust to the technology that we are importing. If you are used to doing editorial processes a certain way, and you introduce a kind of technology which imposes its own way of doing things, the question then becomes how you will be able to maximise this technology.
It requires a change in orientation, as well as a change in training and competences. This is what is within our reach as managers of public broadcasting. The level beyond our control is the policy and the economic end.
At the moment, the conversation is around the legislation and policy regime that is in place that is guiding this digital transition. This differs from country to country.
While countries recognise that radio and television media play a key role in all aspects, broadcasters still think they are struggling as governments are not directing adequate financial support to them. What is the best way to bring this issue to the attention of governments? Are there financing alternatives?
Government does not have to be the one to directly pay the money because, if it does, you will not be assured of any editorial independence.
Typically, public service has been funded by the public. It is the most efficient way to fund public broadcasters, because it helps to ensure editorial independence and predictable stream of revenues.
The role of the government is to make sure that the infrastructure is in place, but also put in place a system ensuring the right model that will make it possible for the public service broadcasters to deliver on their mandate.
We should also not be relying on advertising revenue from the market because that will mean your master will have changed from the government to the market.
Broadcasting stations that rely on advertising revenues also schedule the narrow west scoop of programmes, because there are many local programmes that naturally will never attract advertising revenues. If you are going to rely on advertising to mount these programmes, you will never be able to do it.
Programmes that get to minorities, programmes that are driven in local languages and those that seek to teach are not ordinarily programmes that would attract advertising revenues. Advertising is in reality events, sports and entertainment.
In Ghana, we have a television licence regime where the public has to pay some money and then public broadcasters would access this money to run programmes. This is a BBC model.
We must understand that the primary role of public broadcasting is not to make money, but to serve every citizen regardless of how much is expected in return. You owe it to the people to give them information that they require.
This is why you will find that public infrastructure like transmitters are located in very remote areas where there is absolutely no economic viability. Yet you need to maintain that infrastructure.
If I was taking a business decision I would never put these transmitters in these areas. The public broadcasters have a completely different view of working. This is why governments have to understand.
Discussions also revolved around quality content creation and production. Did you come to a conclusion that Africa has the capacity to create and produce own content?
We produce our own content, but we can do better than we are doing. When we say content we mean culturally relevant and sensitive content. It is the content that reflects our hopes and wishes as a people, and content that pushes our agenda on the global platform. This is what we are talking about.
However, we are not living in a closed world. It is okay to have telemundos and other content. But the difficulty is that you are showing too much of other peoples’ culture and not mounting enough of your own so you find yourself in a situation where the people who are relying on you to have a look at your own culture, have nothing to look at.
It is this way because it is expensive to generate your own content. If you compare a 60-minute drama that you are mounting to the 60-minute drama from Mexico, it is cheaper to buy a Mexican soap.
It is a decision that is driven by economics. If you are a public broadcaster relying on revenues, you will definitely choose the latter because your client believes a Mexican soap will sell for him. This is why broadcasters should be publicly funded.
It turned out that Africa should get to the point of fully having rights to broadcast sports events, after realising that the current situation was not favouring African people. Is this something achievable?
It is achievable and it used to be the case not too long ago. It was until when CAF shifted its position and started giving the rights to a third party instead of dealing directly with the public service.
CAF is interested in the business end of the product. If CAF comes to the conclusion that it is a product that has high demand, it will find ways of maximising it.
But the question is that sports is not just sports here in Africa. It has a certain political, culture and social end. It is not a simple matter people playing football. It is a more complicated issue that we take very seriously.
We have to draw Governments’ attention to that fact; it is no longer possible for us to pay for the signal. We have tried to reason with CAF but nothing is happening.
It is significant that the president of CAF came here and we had a conversation. It is also great that we indicated to President Paul Kagame the magnitude of the problem, who assured us that he will table it on the AU table.
The CAF president argued that it was comparatively cheaper to acquire football rights in Africa than in other parts of the world.
We completely disagree with him. You should look at the economies, they are not the same; the economies are small and weak. You cannot compare a small economy to the big economy.
If you are selling football rights in North America it won’t be any similar to selling them to Africa. The point is that we are also finding efficient ways of negotiating with them.
One of the ways we are going to adopt is to ensure that no single country will negotiate with CAF other than through African Union of Broadcasting. If we do it collectively we go in with muscle than if individual countries go alone.
But even before getting there, we expect the African Union to speak to CAF and let them understand that there are expectations for them to make the signal available. Governments can do that in many ways.
Talk to us about the outcomes of the executive council meeting held with the President of Confederation of African Football, Ahmad Ahmad on this same issue...
We did not agree on anything. It used to be the case that we could not even sit on the same table and talk.
For us, this is at least a good start to the extent that we could sit down and let them know what we consider to be a problem. He also shared with us the problem of CAF. They also incur costs and so if the product has continental appeal and it is possible for them to sell it, they will maximise that opportunity.
This is understandable, but we are also saying that it is not just commercialisation of football rights. We are also interested in social function of the sport. We support our leagues which mean that we are also investing in the process.
It is therefore important not to discount this. We also made an argument as to why it is important to see Africa on a completely different light, and to lower the cost significantly.
There was an ambitious plan to set up a pan-African media outlet. Is this achievable in any way?
This is a dream but an achievable dream. Don’t forget that there used to be URTNA (Union of Radios and Television Organisations of Africa), which as an exchange programme. African countries would share their continent on a certain platform. The idea of having a pan-African media outlet is not different from URTNA.
It is a simple matter of political will among the African states. Once this is clear, the dream can be achieved.