Pay TV Content Pirates Leave Signal Owners Scratching Heads

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The free rein enjoyed by pay television signal pirates across the country threatens genuine content owners, inhibits investments and is capable of suffocating the industry, writes Tolulope Ibukunoluwa

Last weekend, a group by the name, Association of Cable Operators of Nigeria (ACON), urged the Federal Government to end the perceived monopoly on the country’s pay television landscape. ACON, according to media reports, based its call on the fact that its members generate “revenue for thousands of Nigerians”. The group complained that since the offices of some of its members were raided by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) last month, the fortunes of its members have taken a tumble.

“In Rivers State alone, we have over 500 cable TV dealers, who survive on the subscription of customers and sale of decoders. Right now, it is as if we are no longer in business because the level of subscription has drastically reduced. In fact, our members are passing through hell at the moment. For instance, if you pay N3, 500 subscription for Metro TV, you get N400 commission. You can imagine how much you will make if you have up to 10 customers a day,” said the group’s coordinator.

Though the coordinator was silent on what caused the slump in the fortunes of ACON members, reports in the media last month indicated that the cable television operators had a brush with law. This attracted the attention of the EFCC, which raided the offices of some cable operators deemed to have been pirating the signals of both local and foreign pay television service providers, including DStv, GOtv, StarTimes and beIN, the Qatari broadcaster  and exclusive rights owner to many international sporting leagues and other entertainment content.

On 6 October, EFCC operatives raided the Port Harcourt offices of CAN TV, Metro Digital TV and Communication Trends Limited (CTL), all members of ACON. The raid, according to the EFCC, was sequel to the receipt of intelligence that they were pirating broadcast signals of DStv, GOtv, StarTimes and beIN.  It led to the arrest of nine staff of the three firms and seizure of equipment used for the alleged illegal broadcast.

Responding to the raid and arrest through their lawyers, Chatham Partners, the three firms claimed that there was no need for the involvement of the EFCC in the matter, as the alleged offence was not financial in nature.

Paul Osuji, Operations Manager of Metro Digital TV, was quoted in the media as saying: “We did not commit any crime known in law to merit that kind of treatment”. But Chapter 3 of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Code declines to support Osuji’s claim.

“The broadcast or rebroadcast of any content shall be only with the express permission of the rights owner,” the chapter states. 

Responding to ACON, the EFCC insisted that the law setting it up empowers it to investigate both financial and economic crimes.  Abulrasheed Bawa, Head of EFCC’s Port Harcourt Zonal Office, said the suspects arrested were rebroadcasting DStv content and selling it to their subscribers. 

“We received intelligence either in writing or verbally.  We conducted complaint analyses. We carried out sustained surveillance on the activities of three media houses that we raided. 

“We executed search warrant and exhibits were seized and recovered. We got confessional statements. We are empowered by our Act to carry out the search,” Bawa said.

Section 40 of the EFCC Act defines economic crime as any non-violent, illicit activity carried out with the aim of earning wealth illegally. Among these are all shades of fraud, illicit drug trafficking, money laundering and intellectual property theft or piracy. The cable TV providers maintained that the laws of the country allow them to redistribute other providers’ content to their customers.

ACON, via a letter dated 8 October and signed their legal representatives – A.A Aiyelabegan and D. T Najime of Chatham Chambers – claimed that in 2015, MultiChoice, owners of DStv and GOtv platforms, reported the piracy of its content to the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC), with a request to have such protected from pirates. In turn, ACON said its members approached MultiChoice with a request that they be sub-licensed to redistribute and expected MultiChoice to name its price. MultiChoice, however, named no price.

Following the refusal to accede to the sub-licensing request, ACON said it approached a court, praying it to order MultiChoice to sub-license its members. Though the matter is yet to be determined, ACON members are allegedly still redistributing MultiChoice’s content and charging subscribers between N3, 000 and N5, 000 monthly.

In addition to the legal steps they took, ACON also launched an adversarial campaign against MultiChoice, which they presented as a bully in the pay television marketplace by claiming to provide cheaper pay television service to Nigerians in the low income bracket. The cable TV operators also alleged that the EFCC raid was instigated by MultiChoice as a way of strangling competition, as it had previously suffocated Hitv, FStv and DAARSat, each of which did not remain in operation for more than four years.

They similarly claimed that MultiChoice came up with its digital-to-home platform, GOtv, in 2011, as a way of killing StarTimes, the signal of which they were also pirating. That the EFCC raid occurred at the time of the last wave of anti-foreigner violence in South Africa was a boon to ACON, which jumped on it to whip up nationalistic sentiments against MultiChoice’s South African origins through lavish mentions of the unfortunate development in their public communication.

Two days after the EFCC raid, the NCC, which enforces the country’s copyright laws, announced its readiness to intensify its enforcement of broadcast rights in the country and advised licensed cable operators to respect the protected signals of broadcasting organisations in line with the copyright law, international treaties and global best practices.

The NCC made this known in a statement signed by Victor A. Oyefeso, its Director of Public Affairs. Interestingly, the statement was issued after an interactive session in Abuja between the NCC Director-General, Mr. John Asein, and an ACON delegation led by the group’s General-Secretary, Mr. Kalada Wilson.

The statement quoted the NCC D-G as saying: “We will not tolerate broadcast piracy in whatever form. While the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) is the best interpreter of its own broadcast code, the NCC will continue to monitor the broadcast space and enforce respect for copyright in accordance with the copyright law and international treaties to which Nigeria is signatory.”

Asein added that any broadcaster found transmitting signals without authorization will be apprehended and prosecuted as a broadcast pirate.

“It does not matter who the broadcaster is. We have received complaints from several right owners, including the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Star Times, MultiChoice and the Commission will henceforth take measures to ensure that broadcast rights are protected,” the D-G warned.

He equally stated that the NCC aligns with the Federal Government’s position of protecting the interest of Nigerians and legitimate foreign investors to ensure that all parties benefit from the multilateral agreements that the country is signatory to.

The D-G noted that the Commission would work with the NBC to engender a business environment that would guarantee growth of local TV operators.

Responding, Mohammed Bawa, an ACON delegate, made a promise that the group would be on the side of the law. The NCC, as its activities show, clearly considers redistribution of pay television signal without authorization as an infringement.

Last year, a new pay television operator, TsTv, arrived with fanfare and with a lot of noise on its plan to break the monopoly in the sector. Its promise to provide premium content to subscribers at rock-bottom subscription rates, it turned out, was based on a plot to pirate signals of other broadcasters. A few days before it commenced operations, two international content providers, Turner Broadcasting System Europe Limited and belN, wrote to the NCC to complain that the new operator was infringing their exclusive distribution rights to certain television programmes.

Turner Broadcasting System Europe Limited, which distributes Cable News Network (CNN), said TsTv did not have the rights to carry the channel. beIN made a similar complaint, accusing  TsTv of pirating the 10 sports channels it advertised on its website. beIN issued a “cease and desist” order. Those complaints took the wind out of TsTv’s sail and the operator disappeared from view.

Also last year, the commission cautioned two Kaduna-based cable television operators, ABG and QTV, against unlicensed broadcasting and threatened to suspend their licences. The NCC said it acted following receipt of formal complaints from beIN, Aljazeera and Canal +, the French broadcaster, that their content was being redistributed illegally.

The commission expressed its disapproval in a tersely worded letters to the two rogue broadcasters.

 “After doing vigilant surveillance and investigation, we have found out that the original and rightful owner of the content you are transmitting is MultiChoice. But ABG has gone behind without getting due licensing from MultiChoice to continue to operate on the cable of MultiChoice. The only people with the exclusive license to broadcast English Premier League, UEFA Champions League, LaLiga among others is MultiChoice Nigeria. So, we are here to issue a very stern warning to you to desist from this illegal act or run the risk of been shut down,” the NCC wrote.

The same year, NCC’s Director of Enforcement, Augustine Amodu, told newsmen that the commission, during raids carried out in Ughelli and Warri, Delta State, seized broadcast contrivances worth N36.1million and arrested two persons. Items seized included decoders, splitters, senders, signal boosters and wires.

Similarly in January 2017, an anti-piracy initiative tagged “Operation Confluence” led to the arrest of one Salisu McDonald in Ganaja village near Lokoja, Kogi State. Found in the suspect’s house was a range of broadcast equipment that included smart cards, splitters and decoders with a cumulative value of N1.2 million.

Section 51(1) of the Copyright Act defines broadcast piracy as the redistribution of copyright-protected broadcast content on commercial scale without obtaining permission from the owners. Between 2012 and 2013 alone, the NCC said it confiscated illegal broadcast equipment worth N42 million, arrested and prosecuted many suspects for broadcast piracy. In December 2012, one Godwin Kadiri, who was prosecuted by the NCC, bagged a two-year prison term to which he was sentenced by Justice A.A. Okeke of the Federal High Court, Benin.

 Kadiri was deemed to have fallen foul of Section 20(3) of the Copyright Act for having in his possession contrivances such as three Strong decoders, one Hitv decoder, splitters for illegal rebroadcast ( for commercial purposes) of the defunct Hitv channels to 100 subscribers without the content owner’s consent.

About a week before the EFCC raided the offices of ACON members, a major item on the order paper of the House of Representatives was a motion by Hon. Abdulganiyu Olododo. Titled “Increasing Trend of Copyright Piracy in Nigeria”, the motion drew attention the uncontrollable infringement of intellectual property rights. Olododo argued that intellectual property theft renders creativity unattractive and impacts negatively on the country’s socio-economic well-being.

The lawmaker noted that copyright piracy is defying the efforts of government agencies, including the NCC, and threatening the country’s economic well-being. Effectively, television signal pirates rob signal owners of sizeable revenues, thereby eroding their margins. They also inhibit creativity, as those who produce creative content are not encouraged to raise standards because they cannot earn what their craft deserves. Equally, they contribute to unemployment because eroded margins discourage expansion and, of course, greatly reduce revenues payable to government in form of taxes and other fees.

Somewhat strangely, signal pirates seem to believe and actually claim they are carrying out a patriotic duty of breaking a perceived monopoly and widening the access, even illegally, to pay television services. They appear to get encouragement from government figures, who regularly speak of monopoly while refusing or unable to create an environment that ensures providers can make appropriate spend, earn enough to continue buying or creating the right content that makes them competitive.

Writing on Facebook, Aderemi Ogunpitan, who had produced shows for M-net and the defunct Hitv, described as laughable Information Minister, Lai Mohammed’s recent declaration that the government is ready to break the monopoly in the pay television sector. Ogunpitan, who is Managing Director of IBST, wondered why other broadcasters have been unable to develop compelling content as well as competitive and sustainable business models. He also blamed the lack of vibrancy on corruption in government.

 “How else do you explain the stunted rollout of digital broadcasting in Nigeria? Is it DStv that is behind the constant delays and court cases of corruption and delays in providing a digital platform? Is the platform going to guarantee great programming? Look at the rubbish on the screens of terrestrial broadcasters,” he wrote. 

He advised local broadcasters to look at alternative business models, creative solutions, partnerships and cooperation, saying that the market is too big one player to monopolise.

“What has stopped other broadcasters from developing content, creative and business models that can be sustained and be competitive? What happened to Hitv? Was it DStv that caused its folding up? Or, was it mismanaged?” he asked. Ogunpitan argues further that what is needed to raise standards in the sector is new thinking, not more of the same.