'Channels of expression dangerously in few hands'

HARARE - Zimbabweans should guard against falling into the trap of having channels of expression concentrated in the hands of the few powerful elite in the country, media practitioners have warned.

The warning comes against a background where State media houses have been issued with print, radio and television licences while radio licences have only been issued to politically-connected people.

A number of prospective broadcasters have for years been denied licences with their workers harassed or arrested as they patiently wait for licensing.

Zimbabwe has since independence in 1980 known one State television station, ZBC-TV as government refuses to issue television licences to private players.

While ZBC also used to be the only entity to run radio stations, in recent years government issued licences to other players although most, if not all are connected to the government.

Misa-Zimbabwe executive Tabani Moyo said while this development creates a facade of pluralistic ideas; it’s only a few voices of the dominant groups of our society.

“The rise of oligopolies, were there are very few big companies in control of expression is a threat to the very foundation of our existence, the constitution which empowers the nation to develop a flourishing expression regime.”

Media Alliance of Zimbabwe programmes manager Nigel Nyamutumbu called the licensing of genuine private players is not fair and the airwaves are dominated by the State or government related entities.

“This monopoly is certainly a case of media capture, which requires review of the country’s media legislation to address,” said Nyamutumbu.

Lawyer Jacqueline Chikakano believes there is need to have a legal framework that promotes diversity and competition which guards against market place domination in the media and telecommunications sector.

“The Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) used to have provisions prohibiting media cross ownership, while this was an ultimate prohibition and to an extent retrogressive, what could be useful is to have a legal framework that outlines parameters within which this can be permissible because as it is, the repeal of this provision (section 19) of the BSA means that this issue is now unregulated and in that case, there is nothing and no mechanisms stopping entities from cross ownership of the media, subject of course, to the licensing procedures as provided for in the various laws.”

She said as for the new government what comes to mind quickly is the prioritisation in finalisation of the digitisation project which should create more space for diverse players as well as other benefits such as employment creation and the necessary boost to sectors such as content creators.

“Related to this, it is high time that players such as community broadcasters are licensed, all of these will of course need to be accommodated in the law which calls for the need to align the country’s broadcasting and related laws with the Constitution.

“This is so, so that the legislation can fully reflect and promote rights in the Constitution such as freedom of expression including media freedom and the freedom of establishment of broadcasters and the right to information among others,” said Chikakano.

Media practitioner Patience Zirima bemoaned the lack of a comprehensive national policy on media development in Zimbabwe.

“Monopolies are bad business practice. Where there is no competition there is no growth nor innovation. There are also limits on citizens’ access to information when control is in one private company and the State.”

Analyst Rashweat Mukundu said there is urgent need to genuinely open the broadcasting sector; that is licensing of community radio stations and editorial independence for the ZBC.

“The broadcasting sector in Zimbabwe is too politically controlled and underfunded. An effective ZBC must be well equipped yet independent to make editorial decisions,” said Mukundu.

Meanwhile, the call for the licensing of community radio stations is getting louder, this after some misleading information from government officials, in particular permanent secretary for Information George Charamba, that the country has already licensed community radio stations.

During the official launch of Masvingo’s Hevoi FM in July last year, Charamba said there was need to re-examine the term “community radio.”

He said those leading calls for government to licence community radios should feel embarrassed as it had licensed several local radio stations throughout the country like Hevoi FM in Masvingo.

Veteran broadcaster John Masuku said it’s misleading to refer to recently licensed local or regional commercial radio stations as community radio stations.

“A community radio station is established and run by communities themselves and not private, profit-driven entities.

“Currently we have initiatives under the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (Zacras) who have been capacitated in the formation and running of community radio stations as prescribed under the Broadcasting Services Act.

“Communities can form geographical and interest related community radio stations. So far the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) has not yet called for community radio applications,” said Masuku.

The veteran broadcaster called on the government to license community radio stations and truly private local commercial stations.

Media specialist Nhlanhla Ngwenya said he doubts if the reference to commercial radio stations as community radio stations is through ignorance but that it is sheer mischief meant to mislead the public.

“Zimbabwe has no community radio stations, which are those stations established by communities in a geographic area or bound by common interests?

“These are non-profit. It is known that the provincial stations are commercial entities and profit drive. In fact, it is astounding that journalists at State media (who call them community radios) don’t know that their employer owns the majority of these stations for a profit!”

Ngwenya added that this mischief is aimed at making the demand by Zimbabweans for the licensing of community radios immaterial and redundant.

In response to Charamba’s assertions, Zacras said it wishes to categorically state that local commercial radio stations cannot be a substitute for community broadcasting.

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

“…There is need to open up the airwaves as a democratic principle so that we have as many players as is practically possible.

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

Zacras said it is dangerous and irresponsible for a public official such as Charamba to try and hoodwink citizens into believing that commercial and community radio seek to serve the same purpose.

“Zacras therefore implores Charamba not to take Zimbabweans for granted and should cease making unwarranted noise.”

Zacras members who met at a community broadcasting symposium towards the end of last year said government’s reluctance to license them in line with the Constitution has prompted them to defy Baz’s licensing regime and will operate without the licences.