/ 28 October 2011

Zimbabwe hopes for free airwaves

Public hearings for potential new broadcasters are being keenly watched by Zimbabweans desperate to finally be free of decades of the state broadcaster’s tedium.

Although space has opened up for private newspapers since the formation of the unity government in 2009, broadcasting is still monopolised by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

News bulletins mostly consist of diatribes against President Robert Mugabe’s enemies. On October 25, for example, half the bulletin was devoted to slamming Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s backing of gay rights.

Prime-time entertainment comprises anything from Korean romance capers to debates on the evils of the imperialist West. With private newspapers now thriving, the airwaves remain the last reserve of unchallenged Zanu-PF propaganda.

Restrictions on foreign media were lifted in 2009, but both foreign and local journalists need a government licence to work. The daily press market, which was dominated by the state-owned Herald after the ban on the private Daily News in 2003, is now so competitive that private dailies NewsDay and the Daily News frequently trade barbs about who has the largest readership.

Readers now have a choice of at least a dozen papers. Although the government has kept its broadcasting monopoly many parts of the country do not receive radio or television signals because of old equipment. Together with state broadcaster’s poor content, this has driven ordinary Zimbabweans to seek other options.

Even in the poorest homes satellite dishes that access free foreign channels are seen as a necessity. Shortwave broadcasts by radio stations staffed by foreign-based Zimbabwean journalists also offer an alternative. Outside of the newspapers there are few alternative news sources. Years of media restrictions bred countless Zimbabwean news websites, but only a few are seen as credible.

With internet usage rising — a recent survey by internet browser firm Opera suggested Zimbabweans were among the heaviest web users on the continent — more and more Zimbabweans are relying on social-media platforms for news.

But like journalists working in Zimbabwe, local users of social media have to censor themselves. One man was arrested earlier this year for posting a comment on Tsvangirai’s Facebook wall supporting protests in North Africa.