The Zimbabwe government is opening up the airwaves but broadcasters seem too timid to surf.
After years of state control of the airwaves, Zimbabweans yearn for alternative voices on radio. But when a new voice went on air recently, the first sound heard was a Beyoncé dance track.
ZiFMStereo is the second station to be licensed since the government invited private players to apply for licences. The first licence went to StarFM, a station owned by Zimpapers, the pro-Zanu-PF state newspapers group.
Media activists have long campaigned for new stations that would air political voices challenging Zanu-PF. But the new stations have steered clear of politics, choosing the safe territory of neutral foreign news bulletins and entertainment.
Kicking off its broadcasts, ZiFMStereo began with a blast of the national anthem, which quickly gave way to Beyoncé's hit Countdown.
To the hip young presenters at ZiFMStereo's new studios in suburban Harare, Zimbabweans must move beyond politics. On air in one of the brightly coloured studios, two presenters sat across from each other animatedly discussing Twitter etiquette and the pressing matter of whether Rihanna should take back Chris Brown.
These were not exactly the issues citizens had hoped to hear.
Part of the plan
But that was part of the plan, said Njabulo Ncube, chairperson of the media freedom advocacy group Misa-Zimbabwe.
"It is deliberate," Ncube told the Mail & Guardian. "They were issued with licences just so the government would appear to be reforming the media. The new broadcasters are careful not to step on anyone's toes."
But Supa Mandiwanzira, the owner of ZiFMStereo, said its slant towards entertainment was all about business. Mandiwanzira has Zanu-PF links and he reportedly elected the party's treasurer in his home district recently and is the former head of a radical black empowerment group seen as allied to Zanu-PF.
However, Mandiwanzira insists his new station must be judged only on what it broadcasts.
"A lot of people say we are going to be biased. We are not going to be influenced by anyone."
Mandiwanzira is a former news anchor at the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and a former Al Jazeera correspondent. It took him eight months to set up the station after it was licensed, recruiting Zimbabweans who had left the country and importing equipment from Italy. Former BBC journalist Robyn Hunter has been brought in as head of news.
Misa-Zimbabwe said the new stations had not yet offered the critical voices Zimbabweans were waiting for. StarFM "simply regurgitates news from the [state-owned] Herald," Ncube said, and the new stations were "simply ZBC in a different suit".
Misa-Zimbabwe planned to hire a consultant to study content on the new stations and compare it with that of the ZBC, Ncube said.
There is debate about how many radio stations Zimbabwe can accommodate. Government officials have previously said there were limited frequencies available, but Rufaro Zaranyika, an official of TransMedia, a state company set up to build transmitters, said there was space for up to 93 community and commercial radio stations.
But Zanu-PF is determined not to let go. With elections planned next year, media activists said the party feared that community radio stations would be used to mobilise the opposition and keep a critical eye on voter fraud.
A report released last week by rights group Freedom House showed that radio remains more popular than television in Zimbabwe. Although about 54% of Zimbabweans surveyed said they no longer relied on television for political news, about 70% still tuned into radio news.
As a sign of the thirst for alternative voices, the survey showed that VoA Studio 7, a Zimbabwe-dedicated service of the Voice of America, was one of the most popular sources of news.
Zanu-PF views such stations as foreign-government interference in Zimbabwe's internal affairs. The party has often cited the existence of these stations, manned mostly by exiled Zimbabwean journalists, as a reason not to open up the airwaves in Zimbabwe.
Information Minister Webster Shamu described the service as a "war against Zimbabweans".
"We advise all those employed by them, wherever they are, to come back home [to work for] a proper channel instead of continuing to peddle foreign policies, which will never succeed," Shamu said.