The government plans to issue 25 radio licences for major cities and towns in the next two months but there are fears that airwaves will not be free.
The Zimbabwe government plans to issue 25 radio licences for major cities and towns in the next two months as part of efforts to free the airwaves, but there are doubts over the fairness of the selection process.
The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), which is mandated to issue licences, has received 21 applications.
Critics say the board favours those applicants aligned to Zanu-PF and deemed to be "politically correct". The BAZ was criticised in 2011 when it licenced Zi FM and Star FM, which have both been linked to Zanu-PF.
Zi FM is owned by the Zanu-PF MP for Nyanga West, Supa Mandiwanzira, who doubles as the deputy minister of information, and Star FM is wholly owned by Zimbabwe Newspapers Limited, which is government-controlled.
Gift Mambipiri, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations, said there is consensus among civil society organisations that those applicants perceived to be opposed to Zanu-PF would be sidelined.
"That won't be anything new because Zimbabweans who dare to show different political colours were penalised by exclusion under [the] land reform [process] and [with regard to] other opportunities. However, we have always encouraged values more than party politics among our members. Community radio should be above party politics."
Politicians apply for radio licences
Some of the applicants are senior Zanu-PF officials. Among the politicians who have applied for radio licences is the minister of transport, Obert Mpofu, who is also Zanu-PF's secretary for economic affairs.
Parade magazine, which belongs to the Modus group that was reportedly bought out by Gideon Gono, the former governor of the Reserve Bank, has also applied for a licence and so has an independent media group.
Prominent Bulawayo artist Conte Mhlanga, who has done some production work for Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), is also among the applicants.
BAZ chief executive officer Obert Muganyura said that, although each area identified as needing a radio licence would receive one, there was no guarantee that sole applicants in towns such as Masvingo would automatically receive licences.
He said the selection process would be above board and that the applicants would be invited to make public presentations to the BAZ.
Zanu-PF said new players would dissuade people from listening to "pirate" radio stations such as the Washington-based Voice of America's Studio Seven and the London-based SW Radio, which broadcast to Zimbabwe but are not licensed by the government.
Mandiwanzira said: "In the majority of cases the Zimbabweans who listen to these pirate radio stations do so out of desperation because they are unable to get the signal of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation in their area."
Media activists and Zanu-PF critics fear Mandiwanzira could use his ministerial position to compromise the process. He has vehemently denied this will happen.
On his appointment as deputy minister last year, Mandiwanzira stepped down as chief executive officer of ABC Communications, the company that owns Zi FM.
Critics, however, remain sceptical of the licencing process. Rashweat Mukundu, a media consultant, said: "BAZ decisions are informed by what the executive sitting at Munhumutapa Building want. BAZ has to do more to engender confidence in its work, otherwise there will be continued protests over its processes. Licensing of radio and TV stations must be above political considerations so that the media can play a role as a watchdog over the centres of power."