GOVERNMENT will issue 25 radio licences in the next two months amid fears that only the applications of those affiliated to Zanu PF will be successful, further tightening the party’s stranglehold on the airwaves in the countdown to 2018 general elections.
The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) received 21 applications for local commercial radio licences from across the country.
Of the 21 applicants 13 were new, five were resubmissions by applicants who responded to the first call in 2012, while three were pending applications.
The breakdown of applications is as follows: Harare (6), Bulawayo (5), Lupane (2), Victoria Falls (2). Gweru, Zvishavane, Bindura and Masvingo have one applicant each.
However, there is a general fear that the licences may be allocated on partisan grounds, as was allegedly the case with the two private national players currently operating.
Zimbabwe currently has six radio stations. Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings owns four while the two private stations are owned by companies with close links to Zanu PF. They are StarFM and ZiFM Stereo owned by Zimpapers and deputy information minister Supa Mandiwanzira, also Zanu PF MP for Nyanga north, respectively.
Since 2000 Zimbabwe media stakeholders have been calling for the liberalisation of broadcasting services so that private players could operate. However, government has been steadfast in resisting licensing private players despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2000 which overturned government’s monopoly of broadcasting and declared a radio “free for all”.
In an unprecedented move armed police searched and stripped Capital Radio’s studio in Harare of all equipment in 2000, despite a High Court judge’s order cancelling their search warrant. This forced Gerry Jackson, a presenter, and Michael Auret, the director, into hiding fearing for their lives. The house of David Coltart, another director of the company, was raided and searched.
Interestingly, Information minister Jonathan Moyo, now spearheading the licensing of private players, is the same minister who in the past fought tooth and nail against licensing new independent broadcasting players.
However, there is widespread scepticism about the licensing procedures as applicants have to indicate directors and shareholders’ political affiliation in their application forms.
Question 6 and 8 on the application form specifically asks for information on the political affiliation of directors and shareholders.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe director Nhlanhla Ngwenya said the licensing process will always be viewed with suspicion if the licensing authority is not overhauled.
“Suspicion, doubt, aspersions and lack of transparency will persist so long as the authorities do not overhaul the licensing authorities for these broadcasting stations,” Ngwenya said. “There is need to set up an independent broadcasting regulating authority, otherwise with Baz remaining in charge whoever gets a licence will be viewed with suspicion.”
He said overhauling of Baz was overdue especially given the outcry over the last licensing process.
Media scholar Pedzisayi Ruhanya concurs that the reputation of Baz does not inspire confidence.
“If Baz failed to award licences to independent players during the era of the inclusive government, I don’t see it doing that now in this era of a near one party (Zanu PF) regime,” Ruhanya said. “It would be naïve to suggest that a Zanu PF controlled Baz could change this role of the broadcasting media in the interregnum.”
Among those who applied are Cont Mhlanga, Qhubani Moyo, Eric Knight, Community Radio Harare and Ezra Sibanda.
Moyo, Knight and Sibanda resigned from their political parties after the July 31 general elections. They all stood for elections under opposition MDC and MDC-T tickets. Community Radio Harare on the other hand withdrew its High Court application which sought to have Baz compelled to license it. In withdrawing its application it said it was moved by Moyo’s softening stance and goodwill towards media pluralism.
The call for licensing has roused new hope among community radio initiatives such as Kumakomo (Mutare), Wezhira (Masvingo), Radio Dialogue (Bulawayo) and Kwelaz (Kwekwe) that had been waiting for the opportunity over the last couple of years.
Other private players interested in the licences include KissFM and Voice of the People (VOP). The two applied unsuccessfully for the two national free to air licences that were issued in 2012.
However, there is a general feeling that it is too early to start celebrating media diversity under the current government. Media Centre director Earnest Mudzengi said: “The new licences will not really liberalise the media under the current regime. There will be plurality but no diversity leading to audiences getting more of the same.”
Information permanent secretary George Charamba last weekend hinted as much.
“We are getting to a time when the listeners’ fee has to be scrapped. The Broadcasting Services Act requires that all stations make a provision for government airtime, uphold the 75% local content concept, promotion of national languages and dialects yet only the so-called public broadcaster then gets to benefit out of it,” Charamba said.