MultiChoice threatened to pull e.tv off DStv over digital migration, Zondo inquiry told

Yunus Carrim (Pic: Netwerk24)
Yunus Carrim (Pic: Netwerk24)

The Zondo Commission into State Capture on Tuesday heard that MultiChoice and its former parent company, Naspers, threatened to pull e.tv's 24-hour news channel off its DStv bouquet if it continued to argue in favour of encrypted digital TV set-top boxes.

This was according to Yunus Carrim, the former minister of communications, telecommunications and postal services, who appeared before the Commission.

Carrim said Naspers, through its chairperson Koos Bekker, had sought to campaign against the digital migration.

Set-top boxes were intended to aid digital migration. The boxes were to decode digital signals for older analogue television sets, but the process was hit by delays.

Set-top boxes that allowed for encryption would create a countrywide infrastructure that rival pay-TV broadcasters and would be able to compete in the pay-TV space. MultiChoice, for its part, was the dominant player in the pay-TV market.

The process was mired in litigation and ended up in the Constitutional Court.

Carrim alleged that MultiChoice, which in 2019 unbundled from Naspers, had presented fierce opposition in a bid to entrench its monopoly.

Responding to a request for comment from Fin24, Naspers spokesperson Shamiela Letsoalo said the Commission had notified the company of the allegations made by Carrim in his affidavit.

"Having considered the allegations to the extent that they mention Naspers, it was concluded that there was no suggestion of illegality attributed to Naspers; we accordingly notified the Commission that Naspers did not intend to exercise its rights to give evidence, to call witnesses or to cross-examine witnesses in response to the notice received from the Commission," Letsoalo said.

In his testimony, Carrim recalled a meeting he had with Bekker in March 2014.

Carrim told the inquiry he believed that the company was not going to allow competition to enter its turf. He further alleged that Bekker, in a heated exchange, accused him of favouring e.tv.

He added that he swore at Bekker as he was "fed up".

Carrim also referred to email communication in September 2013 between himself and Yunus Shaik, an e.tv executive, where concerns were allegedly raised about pressure the channel was receiving from MultiChoice. Carrim told the inquiry the company "threatened to punish e.tv if they argue in favour of [the] set-top box control facilitation process".  

In the e-mail, Shaik told Carrim that MultiChoice had informed the company that if it supports Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) and set top box control, MultiChoice would cancel the contract to host eNCA, the inquiry heard.

Joe Heshu, MultiChoice Group Executive for Corporate Affairs, said in a statement following Carrim's evidence that his allegations were "baseless".

"MultiChoice has noted that Yunus Carrim confirmed under oath in his submission to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry today that he cannot attest to having personal knowledge of any fraud or corruption in respect of the SABC/MultiChoice agreement.

"Carrim's allegations concerning MultiChoice and some of its officials are baseless. MultiChoice and its officials deny these allegations. We have informed the Zondo Commission that we will respond to the allegations made against us in due course and reserve all of our rights," said Heshu. 

Shaik's email further said e.tv had been informed that Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the former SABC chief operating officer, also intended to opposed the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) policy and set-top box control.

"We understand that they may well too have been issued with a similar script, and have elected to succumb, lest they suffer similar consequences with regards to their new 24-hrs news channel," the inquiry heard.

The inquiry heard the declaration had come from Bekker to e.tv CEO Marcel Golding and was designed to place the broadcaster "under duress and undermine the BDM policy".

Carrim also told the Commission that the roll-out of set-top boxes was dormant, and that some devices that had been ordered were lying somewhere.

"We have been held back ultimately by MultiChoice and Naspers in particular," he said, adding that those who sided with the two companies did so to benefit their own business and material interest.

* The MultiChoice Group listed on the JSE and was unbundled from Naspers on March 4, 2019. Fin24 is part of Media24, a subsidiary of Naspers. 

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