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Look, we own the airwaves!

Independent Comment

THIS week two radio stations, controversially awarded broadcasting licences by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, chaired by Tafataona Mahoso, were frantically trying to roll out their operations in the market under a cloud of scepticism.Government-controlled Zimpapers’ talk radio Star FM, went on air on Monday. The radio station, staffed with former ZBC employees, has been trying its best to allay public fears it will just be “Zimpapers on air” or another propaganda platform for Zanu PF and other dubious outfits connected to the party.
The station has actually invited editors from different media groups — including the private press — to participate in its first programme, Editors’ Forum, on July 1 to discuss editorial policies and other related issues.
Supa Mandiwanzira’s ZiFM Stereo, which describes itself as “Zimbabwe’s first privately-owned national radio station”, announced it has acquired state-of-the-art transmission and studio equipment from Italian company DB Elettronica Telecomunicazioni. The deal was sealed at the just-ended National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas, Nevada,  US.
The moves by the two radio stations were greeted with mixed feelings. Some say the two broadcasters, especially Star FM, would not add value in terms of pluralism and diversity in the broadcasting arena because of their partisan ownership structures linked to Zanu PF.
Star FM, in particular, bears the burden of proof. It has to show cause why listeners, tired of state broadcasting, must trust it or think it would be any different from Zimpapers or even ZBC stations in terms of editorial policy and content.
However, some observers are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Misa-Zimbabwe said it “welcomed the end of ZBC’s broadcasting monopoly as the newly licensed Zimpapers’ talk radio’s Star FM went on air on June 25 2012”. It claimed this represented “a landmark development” in the country’s broadcasting sector “shackled by tight political controls” since colonial times.
It further described the arrival of Star FM as an “historic development”, although, it also noted the controversial way in which it got its licence and the issue of its ownership by Zimpapers.
Nonetheless, Misa said it was “too early to pass judgment” before adding “the ball is now in Star FM’s court to confound its sceptics by eschewing the partisan slant of its owner, Zimpapers”.
Zimpapers officials have been waxing lyrical about their dubious project. But one thing they did not do was to promise anyone an editorial policy shift.
It’s all well and good to say we should celebrate the arrival of Star FM and ZiFM but what is important is: What are they offering to the public?
While it is good to always give them the benefit of the doubt, no serious observers of the media can really expect the two stations to provide a diversity of news and opinions, given their ownership structures.
How on earth can anyone really expect Star FM to have an editorial policy different from its owners, Zimpapers, which operates as a propaganda platform for Zanu PF and sections of government? So far, Star FM is just regurgitating Zimpapers news on airwaves, no different from taking the group online.
However, more worrying is the fear Star FM will just reinforce ZBC propaganda and expand state media structures by default. Of course, on paper Zimpapers is a listed public company, but in reality operates like a party organ and the last thing it can plausibly claim is that it operates in the public interest. For that reason, if no other, Star FM will try but eventually fail to distinguish itself from Zimpapers.
A smoke-and-mirrors approach is not sustainable. At some point the mask will fall irretrievably. The same applies to ZiFM even though its ownership is different.
In the meantime, it must be clear to all the issuing of these two licences is just consolidation of Zanu PF’s grip on the airwaves. One Zanu PF minister jokingly said to us this week: “Look, we own the airwaves!” Who can doubt that? To us it’s clear we still need to reassess the situation and democratically open up the airwaves instead of just waving the green flag for those connected to Zanu PF.

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