Failure to license radio stations retrogressive

For the last 14 years, the Zimbabwean government has failed to license a single community radio station despite passing the Broadcasting Services Act in 2011, which recognises the three-tier broadcasting system and sets the criteria and licensing process.

At least 28 community radio initiatives exist awaiting to be licensed. They have experienced a restrictive operational environment including violations of their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The community radio initiatives have endured police raids, detention of activists and are subjected to surveillance by state security agents. The Broadcasting Services Act was amended in 2003 and 2007.

This report Beyond Tokenism- The need to license community radio stations in Zimbabwe focuses on violations of the right to freedom of expression and the right to information in the context of consistent failure by the government to license community radio stations, and accompanying violations of the rights to freedom of association and assembly for activists campaigning to be licensed to establish community radio stations in Zimbabwe. Restrictions to the right to freedom of expression and right to information for this target group are occurring in an environment where human rights defenders, government critics and the political opposition activists are also not freely enjoying their civil and political rights. Human rights are being restricted through discriminatory practices, arbitrary application of the law and, in some instances, blatant violence is used with almost absolute impunity.

The Government of Zimbabwe’s failure to license a single community radio station since 2001 despite existence of a legal framework which allows for such licensing constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed in the country’s constitution and enshrined in regional and international human rights treaties to which Zimbabwe is a state party.

The failure to grant licenses to community radio stations by the government undermines the ability of communities to participate in debates of public interest especially on matters that affect them be they social, economic, political or cultural. Opening up the airwaves in Zimbabwe, particularly to include the establishment of independent community radio stations, can have a positive impact on the lives of people, especially the low income communities in urban and rural areas who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream media, to freely exchange information and ideas on matters of public interest among themselves through a seemingly cheaper medium that is accessible to them. This will no doubt open up the space for communities to articulate issues concerning their constitutional rights and on development matters that can contribute to achieving personal development and prosperity.

The government’s failure to positively respond to demands by community activists to establish community radio stations has been attributed to a polarised political environment that has existed in the country since 2000, where the media has not been allowed to operate freely. There is public demand for independent community radio stations in Zimbabwe which is evidenced by the existence of at least 28 community radio initiatives spread across the country, driven by community activists pushing the boundaries despite contemptuous attitudes of the government and the regulatory authority.

The operational environment for the community radio initiatives is incompatible with the government’s Constitutional and international human rights obligation to promote a diverse and pluralistic media as part of the right to expression and right to information.

Amnesty International is concerned about the apparent biased issuance of radio broadcasting licenses in Zimbabwe since the end of the monopoly of the state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH). To date, 10 commercial broadcasting licenses have been issued: two of these are national commercial stations and eight local commercial stations were recently licensed in March 2015 and are yet to broadcast.

Notably, all ten licenses have been issued to five companies that are state-owned or controlled — Zimbabwe Newspapers Private Limited, where the government is the majority shareholder and a parastatal, Kingstons Limited — and to three companies which are either owned or run by individuals who are closely associated with the ruling party.

Zimbabwe has an obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of expression of everyone in the country, especially those who are marginalized by the mainstream media and those whose voices are drowned in national or local debates. The government must respect community activists’ right to freely assemble and associate for the purpose of asserting their Constitutional and internationally recognised right to freedom of expression and information. The government must fulfil its obligation to fully implement the rights to freedom of expression and information by allowing people to freely establish community radio stations. The government must remove all barriers that have severely delayed the licensing of community radio stations for 14 years. Community radio stations, whose editorial content is independent and who are owned by the communities, enable ordinary people to freely seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, as envisaged by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The right to freedom of expression in Zimbabwe remains restricted, mainly because of the government’s unwillingness to truly open the airwaves to achieve pluralism of voices by allowing communities to own and control their own radio stations. The Zimbabwean government has failed to implement its positive obligations relating to freedom of expression and the right to information by refusing to allow sufficient access for broadcasting licenses for licensing of community radio stations in the country.

The Zimbabwean government must give priority to community radio stations and see them as equally important tools to address some of the economic, social, cultural and political challenges facing the country. Community radio stations can give isolated and marginalised communities a means of education, self-expression and communication, while also promoting the community’s history, music and oral traditions.

The denial or failure to license community radio stations has been accompanied by a series of human rights violations, including harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, selective application of the law and restrictions of the rights to freedom of association and assembly for people advocating for community broad casting licenses.

As the ITU deadline approaches for Zimbabwe to switch over to digital broadcasting, the government must use this development to allow pluralism in the broadcasting communication sector by licensing community radio stations in rural and urban areas. The government must collaborate with organisations such as Zacrs and the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and similar organisations to support communities to establish viable and sustainable community radio stations. — Amnesty International.

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