Community radio stations should be independent

Candid Comment Faith zaba

Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services permanent secretary Nick Mangwana announced this week that government would licence at least 10 community radio stations by June.

Government has also approved a budget of ZW$92 000 per community for the radio stations.While this is commendable, it is, however long overdue. Zambia has more than 50 community radio stations, while Tanzania boasts of 204, of which 21 are online. South Africa has 40 commercial radio stations and 256 community radio stations — a total of 296 (according to https://businesstech.co.za).

The community radio stations should be truly community-owned and controlled.There is a problem in government funding the radio stations because technically it means it will be licensing itself.

It also infers that the community radio stations will not be independent. If government is genuine about funding radio stations that would be run independently by the groups, it should create a media development fund from which communities, with the capacity, can borrow from. The fund should be a revolving facility.

However, there is genuine fear that the licensing would be done along partisan lines or that licences would be given to those favourable to the Zanu PF hierachy, as was the case with the issuance of the commercial broadcasting licences. These are controlled by the ruling elite (Star FM is owned by Zimpapers and by extension government and ZiFM by former cabinet minister and Nyanga MP Supa Mandiwanzira).

The two also control the provincial commercial stations as sub-units, save for YaFM in Zvishavane, which is owned and controlled by former ZBC CEO Munyaradzi Hwengwere and Skies FM, owned by Zimbabwe electoral commissioner Qhubani Moyo.

Let us hope government is not trying to pull the wool over our eyes and that of the international community. The role of government should end at licensing. It should not license and then also compete for same spectrum with the communities.

A community, according to government, must have a chief and village. This is archaic. We need a community-oriented approach.

Let us also hope that government will not attempt to license its own 10 community radio stations, which would be tantamount to decentralising the state broadcaster, ZBC, into rural areas.

There is need for a genuine opening up of airwaves to allow for communities to freely establish their radio stations as espoused in Section 61 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, including media freedom and academic freedom.

This is indeed a litmus test for government to show that it is breaking with the past. It must put national development ahead of parochial political interests.
We have taken two decades to license community radios; hence it must be done properly using regional best practises. We must draw lessons from South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi.

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