Govt under fire over community radio licensing

HARARE - Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (Zacras) — a non-profit organisation — operating a national campaign to get more non-commercial radio stations approved, is seeing its dream getting dashed.

The non-profit organisation and other press freedom groups seeking to diversify media ownership, scored a victory when President Robert Mugabe signed into law a new Constitution in 2013 that directs the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) — which regulates the national airwaves — to allow community radio stations access to the FM radio dial “subject only to State licensing procedures that are necessary to regulate the airwaves and are independent of control by government or by political or commercial interest”.

Once implemented, Section 61 of the supreme law is expected to result in many new community radio stations. But secretary for Information, Media and Broadcasting Services George Charamba —  speaking last week at the official launch of Masvingo’s Hevoi FM — a commercial station — said the noise from some quarters for the issuance of community radio licences was unwarranted.

“The phrase ‘community radio’ presupposes that there is a radio that does not serve the community, so if there is a radio that does not serve the community, who is it speaking to? Does a national radio station not serve a community?

“So what does our country say today, look, we now have Hevoi FM?

“If they cannot serve the Masvingo community, would the community here listen to them? Would the community here listen to them if they start talking about elephants that are non-existent here or Kariba Dam which is not here ignoring, Tokwe-Mukorsi Dam and Lake Mutirikwi?

“We give you local stations so that their messaging and broadcast content encompasses preoccupations of your area. To us, we would have tried to satisfy the desires of the community.”

Zacras programmes manager Kudzai Kwangwari said “at a time that Zimbabwe has two of the three tiers of broadcasting comprising public and commercial broadcasting, it is therefore regrettable that an official from the ministry mandated with promoting broadcasting diversity and pluralism in Zimbabwe believes that calls for community radios are unwarranted.”

Kwangari stated categorically that “local commercial radio cannot be a substitute for community broadcasting”.

“This is because the two are different in terms of approach, ownership, programming, motivation and principles,” he said.

“Unlike commercial radio, community radio by its very nature and definition is cheaper to run, accessible and allows citizen participation at all levels of the stations.”

New community stations could mean more coverage of local issues such as school board meetings, high school football games, health, education, local music, and literacy campaigns. It also might allow more in-depth discussions rather than the sound bites on most commercial radio.

Curiously, Information, Media and Broadcasting Services minister Christopher Mushohwe, speaking at the Hevoi FM launch, said there is need to open up the airwaves as a democratic principle so that there are as many players as is practically possible.

Findings from the government-sanctioned outreach meetings done by the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (Impi) indicate that many Zimbabweans want licensing of community radios.

“It is therefore unfortunate that by saying that the ‘noise’ for the issuance of community radio licences is unwarranted, Charamba is therefore dismissing citizen views and concerns.

“We therefore urge government to expedite the licensing of community radios, create a conducive and enabling operating environment for community broadcasters, provide a clear and democratic regulatory framework for the licensing of community radios, and implement the Impi recommendations, specifically the licensing of community radios.”

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