Is Netflix Chill? Kenyan Authorities Threaten To Ban The Streaming Site

Jan 21, 2016
Originally published on February 9, 2016 6:44 pm

When Netflix announced its expansion to 130 countries, including Kenya, Nairobi-based IT specialist Mark Irungu says he was thrilled.

He had never failed to find ways to stream Netflix, even when it was blocked in Kenya.

But, he says, touching his heart, "that morning, when I saw that Netflix is global? I can't compare it to anything else."

And then he delivers one of the sweetest analogies about media access I have ever heard: "Think of it as a child who tries to get sugar from the sugar bowl. And they're doing it illegally when Mom's not looking. And one day Mom says, 'Hey, you can have all the sugar you want.' "

His sugar? It's the Netflix drama Narcos, which follows the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar and his Colombian drug cartel. Irungu finished watching Season 1 in a day.

His joy that day wasn't just about the convenience of being able to stream legally or the superior quality that his legitimate subscription bestowed. It was about feeling invited, included in the global community.

And then Kenya's film ratings agency threatened to take that sugar away.

The chairman of Kenya's Film Classification Board Jackson Kosgei threatened to block Netflix for inappropriate content. Netflix countered that parental controls are part of the site.

The board, which regulates what films and TV shows can be shown on Kenyan media, also said that Netflix had failed to seek a license to broadcast its content in Kenya.

But it's not even clear the Kenyan agency has the legal authority to ban the streaming site. It depends on whether Netflix is classified as a traditional broadcaster or an online platform like YouTube.

Legal issues aside, the film board's threats sparked national debate.

Newspaper columnists are debating the pros and cons of binge watching. Pro: It's incentive for your kids stay home at night, a good thing in a dangerous city like Nairobi. Cons: They're binge-watching.

And then there's concern about the future of Kenya's nascent film industry, which has often struggled to compete for a local audience against foreign films.

On the set of the TV show Pendo (Love), the cast and crew were on break because the power was out. Again.

The show's director Gilbert Lukalia is working with a tiny budget and can't afford a good generator. And he says can't compete with the high-quality productions on Netflix.

"We can compete on one small element and that's a story — we have good stories," say Lukalia.

Still, Lukalia is himself is a Netflix fan. He's opposed to a ban on Netflix and says the film board should spend more time promoting Kenyan talent.

And maybe, as his country beings to produce bigger and better shows, a platform like Netflix could help bring binge-worthy Kenyan stories to the rest of the world.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The film ratings agency in Kenya is threatening to block Netflix for inappropriate content. This comes just a couple of weeks after the streaming service announced its overnight expansion to 130 countries. Kenyans have an uneasy relationship with what Netflix likes to called the world's first global TV. NPR's Gregory Warner has the story.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Mark Irungu knows computers. He's an IT specialist in Nairobi, and he's never failed to find ways to stream Netflix even when it was blocked in Kenya. But when the announcement came that he, as a Kenyan, could have a legitimate Netflix subscription...

MARK IRUNGU: I can't compare it to anything else because that morning when I saw Netflix is global...

WARNER: Irungu stops and touches his heart and delivers one of the sweetest analogies about media access that I have ever heard from a grown man.

IRUNGU: Think of it as a child who tries to get sugar from the sugar bowl and they're doing it illegally when Mom's not looking. And one day, Mom says, hey, you can have all the sugar you want.

(MUSIC)

IRUNGU: That's what it felt like.

WARNER: His sugar was "Narcos," the Netflix original series. He watched season one in one day.

IRUNGU: I had saved myself for "Narcos."

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: And his joy that day transcended the storytelling or the convenience or the superior quality that his subscription bestowed. He felt invited, included in the global community.

IRUNGU: It felt like, hey, you qualify. Finally, you know, you qualify.

WARNER: And then Kenya's film rating agency threatened to take the sugar away.

JACKSON KOSGEI: Netflix has a country. It is domiciled in the United States of America. It is a company. They must obey the law.

WARNER: That's Jackson Kosgei, the chairman of Kenya's Film Classification Board, speaking at a press conference in Nairobi. He threatened to ban Netflix for inappropriate content. Netflix countered that parental controls are already part of the site and it's not even clear that the Kenyan agency has jurisdiction. It depends on how Netflix is classified - is it a traditional broadcaster, like a TV channel, or an online platform, like YouTube? But Netflix has raised eyebrows in Kenya among more than just moralizing bureaucrats. Newspaper columnists are debating the pros and cons of binge watching. Pros - your kids stay home at night in a dangerous city like Nairobi. Cons - they're binge watching. And then there's the concern about what this means for Kenya's local fledgling film industry.

GILBERT LUKALIA: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).

LUKALIA: Yes.

WARNER: To gauge that, I stopped by the set of a local TV show called "Pendo," or love. The cast and crew were on break because the power was out again. Thirty-six-year-old director Gilbert Lukalia started apologizing about the generator.

LUKALIA: We might not have the best generator for filming.

WARNER: Even the fact that you need a generator to film...

LUKALIA: That's an extra cost.

WARNER: Extra costs and tiny budgets mean lower production values for a nascent film industry that's struggled to gain a local audience.

LUKALIA: Because we watch so much of the foreign films rather than watching the local.

WARNER: So how do you compete with Netflix?

LUKALIA: We cannot compete. We can compete on one small element, and that's a story, but a good story. We have good stories.

WARNER: Lukalia is firmly opposed to any ban on Netflix. He says the Kenyan film board should spend less time threatening Netflix and more time promoting Kenyan talent so that Kenya's stories told by Kenyans can go global. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.