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of the airwaves in Zimbabwe: Reality or fiction
Zhangazha, Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe
October 11, 2012
to the Alpha Media Holdings Independent Dialogue Meeting, Thursday
11 October 2012, Meikles Hotel Harare.
Let me begin
by expressing the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe's gratitude
to the Zimbabwe Independent for inviting us to this important Independent
Dialogue breakfast meeting. Gratitude must also be expressed to
the organizers for their noble intention of bringing to public debate
the issue of the 'deregulation' of the airwaves in Zimbabwe.
This is particularly
so due to the fact that our national airwaves remain an integral
part of the continuing struggles of all Zimbabweans to fully enjoy
their rights to freedom of expression, access to information and
media freedom as articulated in our current constitution as well
as in international conventions on human and people's rights.
This is even
more important when we consider the relatively recent licensing
of two national free to air radio stations by the Broadcasting Authority
of Zimbabwe (BAZ) toward the end of last year. This development
perhaps has made today's topic more relevant and potentially
The topic itself
is also indicative of potential doubts as to whether the licensing
of two national radio stations can be adequately referred to as
The truth of
the matter is that this recent development cannot be viewed in that
particular manner as all electronic media are regulated across the
The key issue
is whether the airwaves have been democratized or liberalized in
the best public interest as well as in the interests of freedom
of expression and media freedom.
In this vein,
the question that arises is whether the licensing of new players
is indicative of the beginning of the liberalization of Zimbabwe's
airwaves in a holistic and transparent manner.
This is because
there is still a lot of work to be done around our broadcasting
media, with respect to not only national free to air radio and television
stations but also with specific regard to community radio and television
as well as the digitization of our airwaves.
would be important for me to begin by stating that which may seem
obvious but is important from the onset. There has been no outright
democratization of the airwaves in Zimbabwe. What has come to obtain
can only be viewed as a tentative move towards liberalised airwaves
and this, in a somewhat contested manner.
I have used
the word 'contested' because of the politicisation of
the broadcast media regulatory framework by both the inclusive government
and the Parliament of Zimbabwe.
As some of you
may be aware, before the new radio stations were both licensed and
eventually started broadcasting, there were publicly evident disputes
in the inclusive government about the composition of the Broadcasting
Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ).
also waded into the controversy by seeking a role in the replacement
of the current BAZ board members with new ones or at least to have
the incumbent members undergo a new appointment process. As it has
turned out, the BAZ board was not changed nor reviewed, a development,
which meant that when license applications were called for, and
vetted, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the same.
potential broadcasters who had also applied for the national free
to air licenses have since filed court applications either questioning
the legality of the new licenses or asking for information on how
BAZ made its final determinations.
This is an important
point to make in that there is probably still some outstanding business
around 'deregulation' of the airwaves particularly where
one looks at the law that enables BAZ to do so.
It is my view
that a democratic broadcasting law would not have led to such controversies
and it is therefore necessary for me to advise that the government,
through the relevant ministry, must act with urgency to replace
Services Act (BSA) with a much more democratic one.
This is a point
that perhaps was missed by both government and Parliament
in their disputes over BAZ. Both arms of the state would well advised
that it was never so much about the personalities who comprise BAZ
but more about measuring the democratic quality of the enabling
act, seeking to repeal it or amend it further.
A second issue
that I would like to raise is that of the necessity of dealing with
our media realities. As I have said earlier, in considering democratisation
of the airwaves, we now have to deal with the reality that indeed
that the process has begun, albeit controversially, with the licensing
of two private radio stations.
That is perhaps
why the focus of this discussion includes the question of whether
the move to have these two national free to air radio stations outside
of government control has brought 'genuine change' to
the media environment.
Well, its hard
to define what one can call 'genuine' but suffice to
say, the move has basically had an initial quantitative impact on
the number of radio stations one can tune in to.
On the qualitative
side, it has definitely led to robust debates on various topics
including political ones that would not have been easily aired by
the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).
So to answer
the question of whether it is genuine or not, I would simply argue
that it has brought marginally incremental change to the broadcast
media in the country.
It is an argument
that some in the inclusive government have tended to also make about
other areas of change in the country and even though I do not agree
with the idea of undemocratic and unprincipled incremental change,
I have come to partly accept it as a reality of our current media
A point that
I must however make is that which relates to the journalistic aspect
of the new radio stations.
There has been
a significant debate in media circles that there are more similarities
than differences in the manner in which news is reported by the
new radio stations when compared with ZBC's radio stations.
This is a key
aspect that cannot be overlooked and it is therefore imperative
that the radio stations, apart from seeking markets and profits,
should be well advised to take note of.
It would be
expected that the general news content of the new radio stations
should be seen to serve the best public interest and adhere to professional
media ethics and standards, as is the case for the print media.
This is because
radio stations are not just there to entertain, but also to inform
the public on matters of public concern and bring public officials
it would be of importance that the new stations join their print
media colleagues in seeking the repeal of undemocratic media laws
that directly affect the work of journalists and demonstrate media
public accountability by joining the Voluntary Media Council of
This would bring
me to my penultimate point over and about whether privately owned
radio stations are commercially viable. This is an issue relating
to the capacity of the private stations to be able to attract loyal
listeners on the basis of their content as well as advertisers based
on their market reach.
for private commercial players in Zimbabwe's nascent radio
industry, their viability depends also on the performance of the
national economy as well as on the political environment that we
who work for these stations must be confident in working for the
new stations without the spectre of criminal charges for reporting
on the goings on in the country hanging over their heads.
In fact, to
make any media body viable, the government must move to repeal repressive
pieces of legislation that undermine media freedom, freedom of expression
and access to information. Only in such a free media environment
would any media house be completely viable.
I would like to make three very clear points. The airwaves of Zimbabwe
have not been liberalised. They have merely had two private radio
stations added to them.
of the airwaves would mean democratic and wholesale reforms to our
national telecommunications laws (with a view to have a converged
and democratic regulation of all electronic media). This is why
the points made by media stakeholders such as the Media
Institute of Southern Africa (Zimbabwe Chapter) remain valid
and should be taken seriously.
is also important that we do not view any new radio stations within
the ambit of their 'entertainment' purposes only. They
must also serve the all important function of journalistic work
in the greatest public interest without fear, favour or censorship
by the state or be hindered by currently existing criminal defamation
finally, there should be an understanding that the media does not
exist based on government benevolence, but on the basis of the right
of all Zimbabweans to freedom of expression. It is when we fully
understand this, that we can safely argue that things have changed.
Zhangazha is Executive Director of the Voluntary Media Council of
the VMCZ fact
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