FRIDAY, MARCH 16, 2018
BY HON PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD
“That this Parliament agrees to a review of the Media Industry Development Act 2010 to allow subscription based television service to air local content including local news and commercial advertisements in conformity to principles of freedom and dissemination of information in modern democratic nation”.
Madam Speaker, the MIDA Amendment Act was passed by Parliament in July 2015 to facilitate Digicel mobile telecommunications company to buy Sky Pacific from Fiji Television.
However certain conditions were legislated by Government through the passage of the Amendment Act.
Section 42A was inserted in the Act to allow a foreign person or media organisation to provide subscription based pay television services through satellite or terrestrial transmission provided that
- Such television services are limited to entertainment and sports programmes or channels sourced from other country;
- No local content including local news is aired or shown by any such provider except commercial advertisements which exclude advertisements by any political party, foreign government, inter-governmental organisation, non-government organisation or multi-lateral agency, and;
- Such provider obtains a special licence approved by the Minister, which shall be subject to such conditions as determined by the Minister
And Madam Speaker any person or organisation awarded a licence shall be subject to conditions as determined by the Minister.
Therefore, a pay or subscription television service provider is not only handicapped by the restrictive provisions of the MIDA Amendment ACT, but also restricted by the Minister who can enforce conditions.
Madam Speaker, the Minister who issues a licence is the Minister responsible for Communications. And currently the Minister is the Honourable Attorney General.
We recall that when Digicel was supposed to take over Sky Pacific from 1st October 2015, an announcement was made that Fiji One, the free to air channel available in Fiji since October 1991 would no longer be part of Sky Pacific.
This was a shock to thousands who accessed Fiji One, especially Fiji TV News through Sky Pacific. It was important for them to continue watching Fiji One because the 2015 Rugby World Cup had just begun in England. They had a temporary reprieve when the Honourable Attorney General announced that Fiji One would continue be part of Sky Pacific until after the World Cup.
But inevitably, Fiji One was removed because in accordance with the MIDA Act, Digicel was restricted from providing a free channel on its Sky Pacific. Customers had to fork out extra funds to install antennas in order to watch Fiji One.
Unfortunately, Madam Speaker, free to air television does not cover the entire country. In our travels around the country we received several complaints from people who were unable to access television. These were in Tailevu, Ra, Tavua, Ba, parts of rural Nadi and Vanua Levu.
Previously people in these areas accessed Fiji One through Sky Pacific. And ever since mid 1990s when subscription television was introduced in the country by Fiji TV, we had access to Fiji One on pay TV. First it was Sky Fiji that had four channels, one of which was Fiji One.
Then when Sky Pacific began in mid 2000, I recall one of its 16 channels was Fiji One. Even when the number of channels were increased, Fiji One remained an integral part of Sky Pacific, watched not only by people of Fiji but the Pacific as well.
Madam Speaker, it is totally unacceptable that Sky Pacific customers are denied access to Fiji One. They are denied a daily local news service. Fiji TV now runs three news bulletins – Breakfast, lunch and 6pm news and people have a right under the Constitution to be well informed through the news media of their choice.
We may have FBC TV, FIJI TV Mai TV as free to air channels but the right to choose is paramount – just as people choose between radio stations and newspapers or any other products similar in nature. This is common sense. And this Government always talks about freedom of choice without restrictions.
Furthermore, Madam Speaker, the provider of subscription television, in this case Digicel, is prohibited from airing commercial advertisements. This is totally against principles of doing business.
Any media organisation’s core business is commercial advertising. Even reputable international news channels like BCC and CNN air commercial advertisements. All pay channels everywhere including New Zealand and Australia air advertisements.
The only exception may be Pay Per View Channel. Pay Per View, as we all know is paying for a specific event to be aired on television – for example a major boxing bout, of which there have been many examples in Fiji when Sky was being run by Fiji Television.
Madam Speaker, on Wednesday, the honourable Attorney General, while outlining the progress of Walesi Digital Platform, also alluded to Pay or subscription TV saying Sky TV, if allowed to sell advertisements, would seriously undermine the business of free to air channels.
The truth is that Sky TV had been airing advertisements as sponsors to their programs until its official takeover by Digicel. This certainly didn’t affect the revenue of Fiji TV nor FBC. Even the notion that Fiji is not ready for more than one television station was destroyed when FBC entered the market.
And procurement of televisions programmes is expensive. The honourable Attorney General understands this extremely well. The Television Cross-Carriage Decree promulgated in 2014 generated controversy after Government wanted both television stations to broadcast sevens rugby and events sanctioned by World Rugby, rights that were with Fiji TV.
Why would Government force Fiji TV by way of a Decree to share its rights with FBC if FBC TV didn’t have a market and viewership?
An agreement was reached after rights issue were sorted out with World Rugby and reportedly FBC TV agreed to also contribute funds towards the payment of the rights in accordance with the market share of each station.
Also Madam Speaker, free to air television stations also prioritise commercial advertising over transmission of free content. A perfect example of this is FBC TV that cuts short broadcast of parliamentary proceedings at midday to air programmes and advertisements of sponsors of such programmes that are Indian soap operas.
This is despite Government allocating $11.3 million in taxpayer funds annually to both FBC TV and Radio for public service broadcast.
The fact that commercial viability of any entity is paramount cannot be over-emphasised. Television programmes and live sports are expensive. All programmes have to be purchased. And that is why commercial advertising is important for all media organisations. No media organisation can survive without commercial advertising.
Similarly, Madam Speaker, there was talk of no room for two radio companies in Fiji. FBC had monopoly for more than 30 years until Communications Fiji Limited entered the market in 1985. FBC, if my memory serves correct, used to run two or three stations until then. Now they have 6.
CFL started with a single station with restrictive listenership confined mostly to parts of Central Division. Today they have 5. They have evolved into a highly successful commercial entity without any government support, past or present.
So the notion that competition will destroy others is a myth and badly misplaced. It only serves for someone, in this case media organisations, to strive for success.
Madam Speaker, during the honourable Attorney General’s last budget consultations, he was asked by people why they could not watch news.
This has adversely impacted on freedom and dissemination of information is a fundamental right.
Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the media regardless of frontiers”.
This freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times.
The Media Industry Development Decree is regressive and suppresses Media Freedom because it imposes restrictions on pay TV networks.
Madam Speaker, even if Walesi becomes a genuine national network, it is still discriminatory to suppress news and current affairs as well as advertising on Sky.
In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural nation, it is vital that everyone has access to amongst things, news and current affairs as well as advertisements.
It does not bode well for competition if one company enjoys full rights and privileges while others suffer.
I commend the Motion
The Motion was defeated 27 votes to 15 votes