When portable radios become a security risk

HARARE - The recent police ban on portable shortwave radios has exposed government’s penchant for assaulting citizens’ freedoms at a time when the country is preparing to hold a constitutional referendum, analysts have said.

Police, on February 13 announced the ban on the radios claiming that possession and distribution of the devices was illegal as other parties intended “to sow seeds of disharmony within the country especially now that the country is about to embark on the referendum and harmonised elections.”

The banned shortwave radios are popular with Zimbabweans who tune in to broadcasts by Washington-based Studio 7 and ShortWave Radio Africa (SW Radio).

Police ban came in the wake of raids on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) which were suspected of distributing the devices to the rural communities.

But analysts told the Daily News the ban was a direct assault on the citizens’ liberties and was calculated to maintain Zanu PF’s stranglehold of the rural folk, which forms its support base.

“It is not the gadgets (radios) that are being banned, but the information coming through the radios.They want people in marginalised communities to remain blind to new developments. They do not want them to deliberate on the new constitution nor the upcoming general elections,” playwright, Cont Mhlanga said.

Zimbabwe holds a constitutional referendum on March 16 to decide whether to accept or reject a new charter seen as crucial in governing the watershed elections expected later in the year.

So far, the voter education has not been effective because of the biting financial resources which have restricted the printing of more draft copies of the new constitution in vernacular languages.

NCA leader Lovemore Madhuku wants President Robert Mugabe forced to defer the referendum and has lodged an appeal in the Supreme Court following his initial loss at the High Court.

“As Africans we do not respect our culture and ethics as a people and to the politicians they do not mean anything. They always look after their freedoms while denying the weaker their freedoms as well,” said Mhlanga.

He said while the politicians and the rich enjoyed flashy cars listening to Japanese radios, it was grossly unjust to deny the poor rural folk their right to listen to these shortwave radios.

“They say the poor cannot listen to radio because they may get informed and enlightened about events happening in their own country, but what is broadcasting all about? It is about people having choices, choices of what to listen to,” says the playwright.

“Is it a crime for people to prefer foreign-based radio stations than local ones?” he asked.

Ironically, the colonial government of Ian Smith was also notorious for hunting and arresting blacks found listening to Zanu PF’s liberation movement radio station, The Voice of Zimbabwe which was meant to boost morale among the fighters and urge people to unite and keep the fight alive.

Freedom fighters and rural folks updated themselves by listening to portable radios.

The Voice of Zimbabwe, like Studio 7 and SW Radio, was operated underground from neighbouring Mozambique, where the freedom fighters had their headquarters.

Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa, are popular with rural communities as they give them updates on the political front — the violence, intimidation and murders of political opponents.

Interestingly, Zanu PF officials have participated in programmes aired by the so-called “pirate” radio stations as they try to manage the truth getting to communities.

These radios are cranked by hand to generate energy and are handy; can be carried to the fields and even to the grazing lands.

Police suspect these radios were imported illegally into the country and that distributors did not pay tax to revenue-collection authorities.

Interestingly, they claim those listening have not paid listeners’ licences to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).

ZBC, however, has not been known to confiscate radios whose owners have not paid listener’s licences.

On Friday detectives and intelligence officers stormed the offices of Radio Dialogue, in Bulawayo and confiscated 180 shortwave radios as it continued with its clampdown on civic society groups suspected of distributing them.

Radio Dialogue production manager Zenzele Ndebele will appear in court today (Monday March 4).

Leading human rights lawyer, Kucaca Phulu who is representing Ndebele, said his client had initially been charged with possession of smuggled goods in contravention of section.182 of the Customs & Exercise Act but has been slapped with a further charge of possession of a radio receiver without a valid ZBC licence in contravention of section.38 of the Broadcasting Services Act.

Stanley Kwenda, the provincial chairperson of MISA Harare advocacy committee says the ban on radios is a deliberate assault on freedom of expression.

“It is a move calculated to cow the masses and limit their access to information. It is sad that it comes at a time when we thought we are going to have a constitutional charter that would safeguard these rights,” said Kwenda.

Raisedon Baya, a theatre director who has been holding plays in marginalised areas said portable radios are vital for quick information and updates.

“Sometimes newspapers get there when the news or information is stale but radios churn out quick updates and are current. They are very vital if we want an informed electorate or citizenry. I believe it is more about trying to control information.

“It is also an attempt of monopolising the information that reaches the grassroots,” said Baya.

Police has vowed to continue with seizures of these radios, raising fears of a crackdown against civil society groups and rights defenders as well as the general populace.

Comments (1)

And so the violence and intimidation begins. We should ALL GET ZPF CARDS, take advantage of the handouts and then vote MDC on the day.

Peter Macklyn - 4 March 2013

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