Zimpapering over cracks
The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe has stoked fresh controversy over its shortlisting of government-controlled Zimbabwe Newspapers (Zimpapers) as a frontrunner to secure one of two free-to-air radio licences.
The shortlisting of Zimpapers, publishers of the Herald, Sunday Mail, Chronicle and Sunday News, has cast a cloud over a process eagerly anticipated by media players in the country eager to usher in a new era of opening up of the airwaves.
The authority received 14 applications for the radio licences and shortlisted AB Communications, Zimpapers, Kiss FM and Radio VOP. For the past week, the authority has been conducting public hearings with the shortlisted applicants to establish their proposed modus operandi, content and financing.
The broadcasting sector has been the preserve of the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) for the past 31 years.
The ZBC runs the country’s only television station and five radio stations, all openly biased towards President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party. The move by Zimpapers to launch a 24-hour talk radio station is perceived by observers to be part of efforts to support Mugabe ahead of elections, which are expected before March next year.
Njabulo Ncube, chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Zimbabwe, said this week: ‘It’s a welcome development that the authority is moving to open up the airwaves, but it’s also a serious concern that Zimpapers is clawing into the broadcast industry, given its domination of the print-media sector. There are fears that Zimpapers will not be different and will simply perpetuate ZBC propaganda.”
It is understood that Zanu-PF is also pushing for the licensing of the new radio stations to curry favour with the Southern African Development Community by flaunting the so-called reform as evidence of a free political environment.
Article 19 of the Global Political Agreement signed in September 2008 between Mugabe and arch-rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, specifically sanctions the liberalisation of the airwaves. But Zanu-PF has resisted the wave of media reforms.
At a public hearing held by the authority, Zimpapers board chairperson Dr Paul Chimedza said the proposed radio station would portray life in a resurgent Zimbabwe. ‘The project comes at a time [when] Zimbabwe is coming out of a decade of political polarisation, economic hardship, social disenchantment and a state of hopelessness. People are now looking forward to a new era of economic revival, hope, peace and prosperity.”
Chimedza has come under fire from the authority for an alleged conflict of interests—he is spearheading Zimpapers’s bid for the licence and also heads Transmedia, a signal-transmission company that services the ZBC. It is feared that Zimpapers will simply duplicate ZBC radio coverage because Transmedia covers some areas in the country that the ZBC does not.
Meanwhile, community radio stations in the country have been stung by the authority’s move to license commercial radio stations ahead of them. Radio Dialogue, a Bulawayo-based station, has for the past 10 years applied for a community radio licence. According to its director, Debra Mabunda, the station has been told by the authority to ‘wait for appropriate correspondence with regard to the matter”.
‘They [the government] are afraid to give community radio licences because they fear having ordinary people speak back to them on issues of governance. That is what community radio is all about,” said Mabunda.