Broadcasting licence demons refuse to die

I HAVE been monitoring the various statements the founder and owner of new radio station, ZiFM, who is journalist-cum-businessman Supa Mandiwanzira, has been making in public fora with an ambivalent mixture of foiled optimism and sadness.

Tabani  Moyo, Commentator

Foiled optimism at his arrogance and mild appreciation or deliberate disregard for the facts surrounding evolution of the broadcasting reforms agenda in Zimbabwe, and sadness at his expectation that the nation will accept his legitimacy-seeking statements.

Unfortunately for Mandiwanzira, the struggle for the liberalisation of the airwaves is mightier than his narrow interests. There are two critical statements pertaining to this debate:

When you (Mandiwanzira)  join national debate such as the controversy surrounding the constitution of the current Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) and the subsequent licensing of two commercial radio stations (ZiFM and Star FM)  it doesn’t become a Mandiwanzira debate, but remains a crucial national discussion and;

The campaign for broadcasting reforms started long ago with people being arrested, declared persona non grata in Zimbabwe and called many unprintable names. As a beneficiary of such rigorous campaigns by institutions, individuals and regional pressure from Sadc and the AU, Mandiwanzira should be grateful for these efforts as they helped secure his licence.

The broadcasting sector, like telecommunications, remains under tight government control. Until recently the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, predecessor to the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation, had monopoly of the airwaves.

This triggered concerned Zimbabweans, independently or organised by civil society, to challenge the glaring anomaly with implications over how we as a people relate and communicate.

There was a milestone in 2000 when Capitol Radio successfully challenged the legality of ZBC’s monopoly.  The Supreme Court ruled ZBC‘s monopoly was in violation of the constitutional provision of freedom of expression. However government moved in swiftly to overturn Capitol Radio’s triumph by invoking the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act and crafted the nefarious Broadcasting Services Act in 2001.

Given these developments media stakeholders under the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe took a lead in calling for extensive amendments or repeal of the draconian media laws, to be replaced by a more transparent, accountable and democratic regulatory framework.

This is where the current Baz comes under the spotlight in that its composition and constitution did not follow the basic tenets of transparency, fairness, representativeness; nor is it accountable to the people. This was confirmed by President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara.

It therefore saddens me to hear Mandiwanzira, in what can only be described as rent-seeking behaviour, asking the nation to stop the debate over Baz because he is a beneficiary of its highly disputed process. Mandiwanzira spews venom on anyone who speaks against the process that led to ZiFM’s licensing. I hope he will start appreciating criticism, for it is aimed at informing debate rather than attacking his person.

It must be equally noted that during the sustained broadcasting reform campaign Mandiwanzira was never quoted calling for the opening up of the airwaves alongside reform campaigners. We would have had no problems with him had the energy he is showing in defence of the Tafataona Mahoso-led licensing regime been also demonstrated in campaigning for the liberalisation of the broadcasting sector.

In a public discussion over the licensing issue media academic Ernest Mudzengi warned Mandiwanzira: “The demons of the licensing process will continue to haunt the new radio stations”.

I will go a step further and borrow a Nigerian idiom that says “when you have flies in your hands, don’t be surprised when lizards visit you”. I do not have an axe to grind with Mandiwanzira and his business empire, but dream of seeing the broadcasting sector genuinely transformed and opened up. Pressure groups in Zimbabwe must continue to pressure government to grant more licences so that the country is bequeathed with a wider pool of information for making informed decisions.

The broadcasting debate would not be complete without touching on broadcasting laws.

Mandiwanzira must join media stakeholders in calling upon government to amend extensively or, better still, repeal laws that hinder access to information and media freedom. These include the Broadcasting Services Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Interception of Communications Act, the Censorship and Entertainment Controls Act and the Official Secrets Act.

There must be a holistic overhaul of the broadcasting sector that includes, but not limited, to the following:

Urgent reconstitution of Baz to replace it in the long run with the Independent Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe which would be answerable to parliament.
Repeal of restrictive and undemocratic laws.

Government must swiftly embrace digitalisation and comply with regional and international deadlines of 2013 and 2015 respectively.

Government must transform ZBC into a genuine public service broadcaster.

Government must facilitate a three-tier broadcasting system that comprises  commercial, public and community broadcasting

Mandiwanzira must help the nation in taking a lead in articulating these pressing issues, instead of spending time futilely trying to defuse national debate on the quest for total broadcasting reforms.

Moyo  is based in Harare and writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted at rebeljournalist@yahoo.com.

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