Government’s move to ‘cripple’ 1st TV absurd

One can only come to a very sad conclusion pertaining to the government’s mindset on the state and pace of our broadcasting sector development.

By Tabani Moyo

This is specifically so in reference to the government’s response to the launch of private television station 1st TV operating through free-to-air satellite platforms on July 18.

In response to this positive and progressive move, President Robert Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba, who is also the permanent secretary in the Information ministry, outlined the state’s mindset that the government was assessing options of “crippling” the station.

What it automatically means is that the government of Zimbabwe is already busy engaging its Chinese counterpart to assist it in jamming the station so as to cripple it from sending its signal to the country and therefore deny citizens a chance to access information ahead of the make-or-break elections held on Wednesday.

The government has done this previously in a vain attempt to silence Studio 7, SW Radio Africa and Radio Voice of the People (VoP), which the state branded as pirate radio stations.

This poses a paradox, which is self-defeatist on the part of the government. The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) has been on record arguing that the reasons why it is not genuinely opening up the broadcasting sector is due to limited capacity to monitor the industry. However, juxtaposing this widely circulated but misleading position from Baz and the Information ministry with the swift response to the launch of 1st TV, one is left wondering why the government is afraid of genuinely opening up the airwaves.

Here, the government seem to have devised a weak piece of propaganda, if not a deliberate lie that it cannot manage or regulate the broadcasting sector if the sector is genuinely liberalised yet on the same token, the evidence on the ground is clear that the state has been jamming exiled stations and about to do the same on the new broadcasting station. So how are they managing to jam these stations?

If the government has been sincere about opening up the sector, it would not be facing such an embarrassment of having its own citizens using external platforms to enter into broadcasting. This is mostly unfortunate because the country has the immense capacity to licence new players who could accentuate the pace with which we, as a people, can communicate and make informed decisions especially during times like these when we have national elections.

This is irrespective of the fact that political parties in Zimbabwe had agreed five years ago to the need to genuinely licence new players, thus: “The government shall ensure the immediate processing by the appropriate authorities of all applications for re-registration and registration in terms of both the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) as well as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) (Article 19, Global Political Agreement, 2008).”

Attempts to licence new players last year were characterised by controversies never seen in the history of licencing under the sun. Baz, which is staffed by known Zanu PF functionaries, awarded licences only to known Zanu PF sympathisers ahead of those who were deemed to be critical of the party.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Zimbabwe has the capacity to register 56 district (community) radio stations, 31 commercial radio stations, three national television stations and two national commercial FM radio stations. The ITU also points out that the numbers can easily double if the government applies during the migration period from analogue to digital broadcasting.

Koenie Schuttle of LS South Africa Radio Communications argues that Zimbabwe has a total FM frequency allocation of 189 and analogue TV allocation of 200. This is the capacity which the aforestated community, commercial radio and television stations will fit in.

It is therefore shocking when the government appears to subordinate such stubborn facts for narrow party political scores. The critical question is why is Baz not calling for licences to fill in capacity that remains under-utilised so that 1st TV, which government wants to cripple, can then apply and operate from unutilised space?

The reluctance by the government to free the airwaves and allow the proliferation of the three-tier broadcasting system in Zimbabwe, which saw 1st TV taking the free-to-air route was perhaps amply demonstrated by Charamba when he appeared before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Techonologies. He dashed any hopes for immediate broadcasting reforms when he told the committee on November 11 2010 that no new private players would be licenced anytime soon. He said the government has no capacity to monitor and regulate the activities of new private players.

It then takes us back to where we started: where did, all of a sudden, government get the capacity to “cripple”? Why not use that very same capacity for the collective good of the sector by opening it up genuinely and monitor it in a democratic, sustainable and professional manner.

Charamba also pointed out that South Africa should be aware of the harm it is causing Zimbabwe by hosting such stations, saying government would soon activate diplomatic channels to “correct” the situation. We honestly hope he understands that South Africa does not see any harm in having many radio and television stations because they licenced hundreds of them in their own country and continue to do so for it was part of the goals they took up arms against the apartheid regime so as to make relevant information easily available to people.

Charamba should be taking a lead on other issues of serious concern to the people of Zimbabwe rather than focus on crippling media outlets. As things stand, his ministry has not come out in the open to the people of Zimbabwe with the digital migration plan in line with the regional deadline of digital migration by 2013 and global ITU deadline of 2015. We are still shooting in the dark.

That’s why we are concerned that in this era of digital broadcasting, the state-owned Star FM, which came into existence last year, was allowed to operate on analogue broadcasting. It’s unheard of and a disregard for defined policy framework on digital broadcasting. With all due respect, there is more value in focussing on such issues than chasing after broadcasters who have been stamped out due to the shrinkage of democratic space.

The Zimbabwe government has always been stubbornly defiant to the regional instruments governing the development of the media such as the Windhoek Declaration (1991), The Banjul Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the African Charter on Broadcasting. The General Regulatory Issue Number 1 of the African Charter on Broadcasting states that: “The legal framework for broadcasting should include a clear statement of principles underpinning broadcast regulation, including promoting respect for freedom of expression, diversity, and the free flow of information and ideas, as well as the three-tier system for broadcasting: public service, commercial and community.”

Despite the government of Zimbabwe being a signatory to this charter, it is deplorable that there has been no tangible evidence pointing to the government’s political will to fulfil its regional, local and international obligations specifically in relation to freeing up the airwaves.

It is widely acknowledged that the BSA, as a broadcasting regulatory framework, has serious defects and flaws which fall short of meeting regional and international benchmarks on the regulation and management of the broadcasting sector and thus impacts negatively on the right and enjoyment of freedom of expression, press freedom and access to information.

I therefore call upon the government to respect the law at home and uphold regional and international instruments by facilitating the establishment of community broadcasting, be it radio or television, private and public broadcasting. Public officials should be liberated from the war mentality that is aimed at crippling institutions. The war was fought and won a long time ago.

Moyo can be contacted on rebeljournalist@gmail.com