Zimbabwe: Anxiety Grips Viewers Over Feared SABC Blackout

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Television Viewers in Zimbabwe Have Been Gripped By Anxiety Following the Expiry of South Africa's May Deadline to Switch Off Its Free to Air Channels.

If disconnected, viewers face the dismal prospect of either going back to ZTV or the more expensive option of paying for Digital Satellite Television (DStv) which ranges from US$10 to US$72 per month depending on the package one likes.

In February this year, Sentech, a South African television signal carrier, was ordered by the Johannesburg High Court to encrypt its signal within the next three months, a development expected to see many Zimbabweans losing access to the neighbouring country's free-to-air TV channels.

Sentech distributes free-to-air channels such as South African Broadcasting Corpo-ration (SABC) 1, 2 and 3 among others, which are popular among Zimbabweans who use Wiztech, Philibao, Fortec Star and Vivid decoders to gain free access to the channels.

The ultimatum to disconnect viewers from outside South Africa followed eBotswana, a subsidiary of South Africa's eTV, which last year approached the Johannesburg High Court, seeking an order compelling the signal carrier to encrypt its signal, as failure to do so had given rise to signal piracy.

The order, if implemented, would mean viewers from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique will no lo-nger have access to South African television.

"We are very much worried about that as we will lose a lot in terms of entertainment since our ZBC has since been a disappointment having degenerated to levels that are not even watchable," said Tamara Tshuma of Kingsdale.

She added: "I think viewers will have to just sacrifice and subscribe to DStv although it might be too expensive for some people, because truly speaking who can withstand the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC)?"

Isabel Ncube, another Bulawayo resident disturbed by the expiry of the three months period said she feared losing entertainment and Christian programmes. She urged South African authorities to be lenient on Zimba-bweans as the removal of SABC would create a vacuum that would be difficult to fill.

Two years ago, information and entertainment starved Zimbabweans lost free access to South Africa's private eTV. Rodrick Fayayo, Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association coordinator, said: "Obviously the cutting-off of SABC will have serious consequences as you know that the majority of the residents have Wiztech, which means they have a serious problem with ZBC which is not serving their interests."

He said the removal of SABC channels would result in the reduction of alternative sources of information. Anglistone Sibanda, National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations western region secretary-general, said the departure of SABC would deal a heavy blow on the people of Matabeleland, the majority of who have no access to ZBC.

"SABC has been our television station ever since as we cannot rely on ZBC, which has even failed to implement reforms prescribed by the Global Political Agreement," he said.

Sibanda said SABC should wait to cut-off Zimbabwe until elections, to counter ZANU-PF propaganda that usually overwhelms ZBC during polls.

He added that it would be difficult for many to subscribe to DStv, adding that external radio stations such as The Voice of America's Studio 7 would have to increase their hours of broadcast to cover up for the gap created by SABC.

The SABC channels have become popular with thousands of Zimbabweans, who are frustrated by poor programming, a dearth on local broadcasting standards and the lack of variety from the only broadcaster, ZBC.

Zimbabwe has the highest broadcast piracy rate in Africa of 92 percent, as people use Wiztech and Philibao decoders to decrypt South African signal career, Sentech's signals.