Police ban radios

HARARE - The level of desperation and paranoia in President Robert Mugabe’s government has plunged to new levels, with police announcing a ban on radios which are not compatible with State-owned stations.

A police spokesperson announced the ban at a press briefing yesterday, and warned that people who received the radios will also be arrested together with organisations which distribute the gadgets.

This sets the stage for a massive crackdown likely to affect rural people most as they are ones who have been relying on the radios to listen to popular short wave stations such as Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa.

The short wave radio stations have become a hit in rural areas, not only because ZBC has poor transmission there but also because they have shied away from rabid propaganda broadcast on State-owned stations.

In a sign of how State agents are girding for an election likely to be hardest-fought since independence in 1980, police banned the radios at a time they are intensifying a crackdown on civil society, whose leaders they have arrested on several occasions since New Year.

Police yesterday also ransacked Harare and Masvingo offices of Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn), the country’s biggest independent elections watchdog group.

But it is the ban on radios which has shown how tensions are deepening.

Yesterday, police said they will arrest civil society organisations that distribute the portable radios which use solar power while villagers who are recipients will also be in the line of fire.

Many villagers already own the radios and have in the past been harassed by war veterans and Zanu PF militia who confiscated the gadgets in volatile areas such as Mutoko during the bloody 2008 presidential election run-off period.

As the country enters another election period, police have decided to be involved in the purge and allege the gadgets promote hate speech.

National police spokesperson Charity Charamba read the riot act to NGOs funding the distribution exercise at the police headquarters in Harare.

“The distributors and recipients stand warned that ZRP will not tolerate any such chicanery,” she said.

NGOs such as Zesn distribute the radios in areas where they carry civic education on electoral processes and human rights-related issues.

On Monday, Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai agreed to push for media reforms which include asking ZBC to toe a non-partisan stance and stop peddling hate speech.

But police say foreign-based radio stations that include Studio 7 are to blame for disseminating hate speech and creating fertile ground for political violence.

“We strongly believe that the intentions of such people (distributors) are not holy but meant to create and sow seeds of disharmony within the county especially now that the country is about to embark on the referendum and harmonised elections,” Charamba said.

Studio 7, which is broadcast from the United States, has overtaken ZBC in terms of listenership, according to latest surveys.

The crackdown on seemingly unimportant radios and civic society organisations is viewed as an onslaught on the rural populace which religiously follow Zimbabwe news on the so-called pirate radio stations since the public broadcaster barely covers the whole country.

Outlying areas such as Beitbridge, Mudzi, Victoria Falls, Plumtree and Mt Darwin do not receive the ZBC signal. Poor reception and intermittent or non-existent power ensure that very few people can watch or listen to ZBC radio and television stations.

 “Some are taking advantage of needy communities under the guise of helping them,” she said.

“As police, we have information that some unpatriotic individuals are distributing radios mostly in rural areas.

“The police are warning such people or any member aligned to any political party to desist from this practice…We will not stand akimbo while unpatriotic elements within us engage in activities aimed at fermenting sentiments of violence among peace-loving Zimbabweans,” said Charamba.

Charamba was flanked by her deputy Oliver Mandipaka, who added that the distributors are targeting mostly areas where ZBC signals are inaccessible.

“An example is in Gwanda; we have arrested some people and confiscated such devices. These are being distributed in areas where there is no ZBC signal,” said Mandipaka.

The shock move to ban radios came as police raided Zesn offices in Harare and Masvingo, where radios and other gadgets were confiscated.

In the past few weeks, several offices of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that include the Zimbabwe Peace Project and the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations have been raided by police.

Two officials from the Centre for Community Development Zimbabwe (CCDZ) were last week arrested for allegedly breaching harsh security laws. - Xolisani Ncube, Fungi Kwaramba and Godfrey Mtimba

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