NEW media platforms will play a limited role in general elections set for next year after government made it clear that no new broadcasting players will receive licences in the medium term until the state develops the capacity to monitor and regulate the independent players.
Analysts believe that new media technologies such as social networks (Facebook), mobile phones with Internet capabilities and external-hosted radio channels on shortwave frequency can never really replace the traditional broadcasting media channels due to access and affordability issues.
The past few months has witnessed an accelerated availability of broadband Internet access through mobile phones or laptops.
Currently Econet Wireless, Africom and Powertel are providing Internet access and Telcel are testing their GPRS Internet service before they offer it on the market.
However, these services are still expensive compared to regional prices as companies are battling to recover their capital outlays.
Trevor Maisiri of African Reform Institute argues that present economic conditions and Internet networks are not sufficiently advanced to be a tool accessed by the majority of Zimbabweans at reasonable costs.
“New media technologies will not play any considerable role in the forthcoming elections. Issues surrounding connectivity and affordability will haunt these technologies,” he said. “The service providers are limited to mainly urban areas and the gadgets that give one connection are still out of reach for the majority of Zimbabweans under the prevailing economic conditions. Most probably in the next two years they may become a force to reckon with but not now.”
Maisiri further stated that external radio stations are faced with credibility test on their news content as they report from a distance.
“External radio services suffer credibility as the authenticity of their messages is questionable due to time delay. The delay is occasioned by their broadcasting from a distance and they lack reporters on the ground,” he said.
“Some of these stations are not accessible to the majority of the people due to costs associated with purchasing the radios and previous cases of people who had the free winding radios taken from them,” he added.
MDC-T spokesperson Nelson Chamisa believes that the government should move ahead and liberalise the airwaves to create an even electoral field than to look at people trying to get news from new technologies.
“It would be good to have new broadcasters come aboard and level the playing field. Our position still remains that new players should be licensed,” he said.
While, Zanu PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo said that the new media technologies are a new reality, their impact is still limited to certain areas due to technological barriers across the country.
“There is no question about new technologies having an impact on information dissemination. All organisations now use these new technologies and we are still trying to find ways of using them more effectively,” he said.
“Currently, they would be more effective in urban areas than rural areas because of technological barriers but certainly they will have an impact.”
MDC-M spokesperson Edwin Mushoriwa said all reforms mentioned in the GPA should be implemented in full before fresh elections are called for if the election result is to be credible.
“Media and electoral reforms as espoused in the GPA should be implemented first before any new election is called.
“We cannot go to an election with one party dominating the airwaves, he said adding that: “The use of new technologies is desirable but it should be contextualised to the operating environment.”
Mushoriwa went further to say: “Very few Zimbabweans have access to the Internet or the new gadgets thus few people would be reached. Our view is that the majority still relies on traditional electronic broadcasting and print media. We therefore call for the liberalisation of the same as stated in the GPA.”
Pedzisai Ruhanya, programmes manager at Crisis Coalition in Zimbabwe said while new media technologies would have an impact on information dissemination the government should move on to liberalise the airwaves as access to information is a human rights matter.
“New media technologies are mainly accessible to rich people. Access to information is a human rights issue and information should be universally accessible. These new technologies have a limited reach as prescribed by the service providers and affordability to individuals,” he said.
“Thus it is important to have new broadcasters licensed as radios are generally affordable and many people can listen to at once unlike Internet which is more individualistic,” Ruhanya said.
Another analyst, Taurai Marimo a media lecturer in Botswana argued that new media technologies have generally been embraced by the youth and young executives while the rest of the people still depend on traditional media like radio and the print media.
“The new media technologies like Facebook on the Internet and mobile Internet have been embraced by more youths than any other age group. In Zimbabwe, however, the issue is also married to affordability but it is important to note that to catch the youths one can use these platforms,” Marimo said.
On the whole the analysts agree new media technologies come to complement and enhance the traditional media channels. To that end, Zimbabwe still needs to create the traditional media first before they get euphoric with the new media technologies.
Broadcasting should be liberalised and new players should come onboard and these should also make sure that their services are universally accessible to all Zimbabweans including the majority poor.