BULAWAYO — Zimbabwe remains the only country in the southern African region still to have an independent television station, let alone community radios 33 years after its independence from Britain.
The state of affairs in the broadcast sector can be described as unfortunate in comparison with neighbouring South Africa which has several independent television stations and over 120 community radios notwithstanding that Zimbabwe was the first to have a television station in 1967.
South Africa only followed in 1970.
The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) still maintains a tight grip on the airwaves with the powers-that-be demonstrating lack of political will to open the space for independent players.
Analysts reason that freedom of expression, a human right, cannot be fully realised without citizens using media of their choice to express themselves.
Zimbabweans had pinned their hopes on the inclusive government to open the airwaves but the coalition failed to measure up to expectations in the five years it was in charge of government’s affairs.
Despite Article 19 of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) that gave birth to the inclusive government stressing the need to licence other electronic media in addition to ZBC, no private player has been licensed to compete with the public broadcaster.
It was only last year when the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) made some strides in opening up the radio sector.
Last year, BAZ controversially awarded two free-to-air national commercial radio licences to an institution and individual with links to ZANU-PF.
One of the licenses was given to state-run Zimbabwe Newspapers’ Star FM while ZANU-PF’s newly elected lawmaker, Supa Mandiwanzira’s ZiFM got the other one.
BAZ has been mum about the licencing of community radio stations.
Currently, there are 13 community radio initiatives across Zimbabwe, all waiting to be invited to apply for broadcasting licences.
Some of these stations have state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment and ready to go on air, only held back by licensing.
According to section 10 of the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), licence applications can only be received and processed after BAZ has made an invitation for their submission.
BAZ has, however, not made such an invitation regarding community radio licences since its inception in 2001, a development observers say betrayed government’s reluctance to ending ZBC’s monopoly on the airwaves.
It remains to be seen if ZANU-PF, which won over two thirds Parliamentary majority in July polls would further free the airwaves during its five-year-term in government.
Getjenge FM’s executive director, Thomas Sithole, said he has no confidence in ZANU-PF spearheading media reforms they have been demanding given the party’s intolerance of dissenting views and voices.
Getjenge FM is a Plumtree-based community radio initiative.
Sithole however, envisages some moderates in ZANU-PF attempting to push for partial media reforms in order to project the party as pro-reforms.
“I think there will be some kind of tokenism of some sort in which case ZANU-PF will, through their structures and affiliates create its own media houses including radio stations and then licence them,” he said.
Radio Dialogue production manager, Zenzele Ndebele, said they felt let down by the outgoing inclusive government because of its failure to implement Article 19 of the GPA.
Radio Dialogue is a Bulawayo-based community radio that has been fighting for a licence for over a decade.
“I don’t expect anything new from the incoming government because the people who have been refusing to free the airwaves for over 25 years are now back in power,” he bemoaned.
He said ZANU-PF did not want to subject themselves to any form of criticism hence the withholding of private broadcasting licences.
Ndebele said ZBC, the public broadcaster, should stop functioning as an extension of ZANU-PF’s information department while calling for the appointment of a new ZBC management by an autonomous body that is independent from the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity.
Zimbabwe Association of Commu-nity Radio Stations (ZACRAS) national coordinator Vivienne Marara challenged the incoming media minister to licence genuine community radios.
“On our side as ZACRAS, what we would need to do is to extensively engage the new minister so that we push for the community radio agenda and also propose our expectations with reference to the policy framework and general operating environment,” said Marara.
Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe chairperson, Njabulo Ncube, said the coming in of a new ZANU-PF government meant doom for the media in Zimbabwe.
“We expect nothing new from the incoming government because during the lifespan of the inclusive government the ZANU-PF side appeared to be not interested in a free media,” Ncube said.
He cited Media Minister, Webster Shamu’s refusal in 2010 to reconstitute the ZBC and BAZ boards.
The MISA-Zimbabwe chairperson said the recent arrest of Times journalist Jan Raath over a story he co-authored with a British reporter, Jerome Starkey, alleging that Zimbabwe had entered into a secret deal with Iran to export uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons just before the swearing-in of the new government meant the worst was still to come for journalists and media houses in the country.
“Let me be the devil’s advocate and predict a very bleak future for the media — both the private and the public — in Zimbabwe,” Ncube said.
Ncube foresees the continued abuse of Zimpapers and ZBC as ZANU-PF propaganda machinery while repressive laws such as the Interception of Communication Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act would be used to suppress private press.
“However, in our hopelessness we will try to fight for freedom of expression and of the media. We will try to defend those provisions that we fought to have provided for in the new constitution,” Ncube said.
Of the incoming Media Minister, he said: “The new minister should be privy to the aspects of the constitution that guarantee freedom to expression and the right to access of information. He or she should also recognise the importance of having independent television stations and must fast-track the licensing of radio stations”.