Africa’s First Broadcast, Film and Convergence Conference to be sponsored by Al-Jazeera and Wananchi

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Last week the Government owned Libyan Jamahiriya Broadcasting issued new contracts for staff at the Gabon-based pan-African radio station Africa N°1 which it took over in 2006. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that a formerly French-owned radio station launched to promote French language and culture has been taken over by the Libyan Government. As with the acquisition of Gabon Telecom, the takeover provided the pretext for employee unrest which took the service off-air for a short time. Russell Southwood tries to make sense of what’s been happening.

Africa N°1 was set up in 1981 when President Mitterand came to power with an initial investment of FCFA100 million from Sofrea, a regional economic development arm of French oil company Total and Societe Financiere de Radioffusion (SOFIRAD), the state owned media investment arm of the French Government. Other shareholders included the Gabonese Government (25%) and various private Gabonese shareholders (25%). The Sofrea shareholding was subsequently sold to Gabonese interests.

Like its European counterpart Europe No 1, the radio station was launched to promote French language and culture in Africa alongside France’s RFI. The station was meant to compete with the long list of Government-owned international stations competing for African interest including Voice of America, BBC World Service, Japan’s NHK and many others. As with the broadcaster TV5, the multi-governmental shareholding structure was meant to reflect the wider interest from countries beyond France in protecting “la francophonie”.

In 2002 the radio station hit a financial crisis after losing a contract to rebroadcast RFI and NHK from its transmitter at Moyabi, 600 kms south of the capital Libreville. However, the Gabonese government made special subventions to the company that covered its deficits until 2006 when it decided to pursue Libyan ownership. So in November 2006 52% of the company was bought by Libyan Jamahiriya Broadcasting, with 13% of the shares remaining in private hands. The deal was supposed to open the way for a Libyan-financed development of a pan-African radio station while the Gabonese government got FCFA3.4 billion for its shareholding.

Given the fast pace of business in this part of Africa, new contracts for employees were not issued until this month (just under two years after the sale) and these have been the “cause de guerre” for the current strike. So shortly after completing its first edition of "Grand prix de l'intégration africaine", listeners heard the message:” Dear listeners, would you please excuse the disruption in service; the staff of Africa N°1 are on strike.”

The station’s union Syca is protesting about redundancy terms for 93 employees agreed by the new owner with Gabon’s Privatisation Commission, which handled the sale. Jean-Claude Boucka, head of Syca asked:”How is it possible to understand that an employee will only get FCFA1.5 million (approximately US$3,600) for more than ten years work?” A sum of around US$970,000 has been set aside to deal with the 93 redundancies. The union thinks the sum should be closer to US$1.45 million.

Meanwhile the station apologised to its listeners and switched the transmission of programmes to Paris. It is currently being broadcast on 107.5 FM and claims to reach both Paris and the larger capitals of Africa and is also available as part of the satellite bouquet Africasat.

The dream of a pan-African broadcasting station has long attracted African politicians of all persuasions, even leading to discussion of a possible pan-African TV channel at the African Union. There is something so appealing about having a media that presents something different to the Africa’s more usual media image, the long litany of disaster and war.

However, whatever attractions the idea may have these are more than outweighed by the limitations. Africa’s political class is no friend of free speech and debate and without these, any pan-African channel would be mind-numbingly boring. Even the relatively well-made continental news channel produced by SABC has struggled to find a critical mass of viewers. Perhaps therefore it’s better to leave this pan-African “grand projet” to a private sector broadcaster.

The first African Broadcast & Film Conference, to be held in Nairobi over 23-25 September, is receiving strong local and international support from the broadcast and film industries, setting the scene for an event that is going to have a major impact in terms of promoting the sector. The event is being organised by AITEC Africa and programmed by Balancing Act. It will be held under the auspices of the Ministry of Information and Communications. The conference will be opened by Hon Raila Odinga, Prime Minister of Kenya.

The Wananchi Group, which recently entered the broadcast sector by buying Mitsumi TV, has announced its Lead Sponsorship of the event. Announcing the sponsorship, Suhayl Esmailjee, Chief Operating Officer of the Wananchi Group, said that the event had an important role to play in developing the broadcast market “The conference comes at a turning point for the industry, when new technologies, services and business models are being rolled out. Wananchi is in the process of expanding its cable service to offer an unprecedented triple play service in Kenya – Internet, TV and telephony, all in the same cost-effective package. This conference provides the ideal platform to launch the service.”

Al Jazeera is the International Broadcast Partner for the event and KBC is the National Broadcast Partner. David Waweru, MD of KBC, welcomed the boost Kenya’s film and broadcast industries would have by hosting the event. “KBC is proud to be the National Broadcast Partner for this conference, which has high educational and marketing value. It will provide a showcase for Kenya’s expanding communications sector and have a major impact in terms of promoting new technologies, increased professionalism and international exposure. We have worked with AITEC in the past and are confident they are going to stage a world class event.”

Other supporting organisations for the event include the Communications Commission of Kenya, the Kenya Film Commission and the African Broadcast Network.

The impressive line-up of over 50 speakers includes some of the continent’s leading lights in broadcasting and film-making. The event includes an exhibition of latest technologies and services in the sector.