Koliwe Nyoni and Zenzele Ndebele* reflect on the repressive media environment in Zimbabwe and share some lessons from alternative broadcasting initiatives
Questions of media freedom have always been linked to questions of democracy and democratisation – many people have argued that the extent to which a country’s media is said to be free is indicative of the level of democratisation in that country. A free media allows people to freely exchange ideas and opinions, especially on the way that they are governed. Unfortunately in Zimbabwe today, the media are neither free nor diverse. The country is one of the few in the Southern African region that does not have independent radio or television radio stations.
Monopoly and restrictive media laws
Broadcasting in Zimbabwe has always been a privilege enjoyed by the government since the days of Rhodesia when legislation gave the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) a monopoly over the airwaves. Despite many countries in Africa opening up their airwaves since the 1990s, the Zimbabwean government has consistently shown its reluctance to doing likewise. In 1993, Robert Mugabe publicly remarked that: “You don’t know what propaganda a non-state radio station might broadcast.”
In September 2000, Capitol Radio successfully challenged the ZBC monopoly as unconstitutional and the government was forced to promulgate the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), ostensibly to introduce diversity in the sector. In reality, however, the Act became a legal way in which the government maintained its monopoly on the broadcast media in the country. The Act makes onerous demands for any potential entrant into the sector, requiring, among other things, unrealistic shareholding/ownership structures, exorbitant licence fees, and burdensome application and registration procedures. Thus, since its enactment in 2001, not even one radio or TV station has been licensed in Zimbabwe.
The government has also used repressive media laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order Services Act (POSA) and the Constitutional Amendment Act (No. 17) to hinder the operations of the private print media. Consequently, the past four years have seen the closure of four private newspapers for allegedly violating the many media laws that the government recently introduced. Journalists are constantly harassed, beaten up arrested and charged for various ‘crimes’ by the state, while foreign media correspondents are denied permission to operate in the country, or in some cases, arrested and deported.
Radio Dialogue and survival strategies
Radio Dialogue is the most visible community radio project in the country to date.
Established in 2001, the project was set up to cater for the informational and entertainment needs of the people of Bulawayo. According to the broadcasting regulations in the country, new players can only operate once licensed by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ). But since the BAZ has never called for applications since its establishment in 2001, Radio Dialogue has had to devise several strategies to maintain its visibility among the Bulawayo public who have been waiting anxiously for it to go on air.
One of the earliest strategies that Radio Dialogue embarked on was the production of radio programmes on cassette that were disseminated to the public via taxis, buses, hair salons, and community recreational centres. Entitled Taxi Tunes, these highly popular productions featured informational and educational content, which was interspersed with pop music and public service announcements. They were distributed for free to the public, and were usually heard being played on buses, taxis and other public gathering places. After four editions of Taxi Tunes, the BAZ wrote to Radio Dialogue and informed them that the playing of previously-recorded programmes in public areas was tantamount to broadcasting and thus, the station should apply for a licence to continue its project.
Identifying a loophole in the legislation, Radio Dialogue formed listener ’s clubs in the townships of Bulawayo, and distributed the cassettes to members of these clubs. The broadcasting legislation is silent on the issue of organisations distributing pre recorded material to their members. The listeners’ clubs strategy was complimented by road shows that were held in and around the city, where the public got the chance to air their views on the need for community media in the country. These views were recorded and packaged into more cassette- format programmes. This move was met with a lot of negative publicity from the public media, and the Ministry of Information did, on many occasions, threaten to close Radio Dialogue because it is a “pirate [radio] station”.
Currently, Radio Dialogue has been going around Bulawayo’s townships and conducting public meetings with the people on various issues affecting them such as food shortages, burglary and theft, service delivery, water provision and HIV/Aids. These meetings are structured in a radio programme format, where there is an anchor, studio guests and a live audience. Normally, representatives from the government and opposition politicians are invited to the meetings to respond to the people’s questions. The meetings are always recorded and stored, providing the station with a ready-made collection of programme material. Some of the material is packaged on CDs and audio cassettes and is distributed to the listeners’ clubs.
There are a number of community radio initiatives mushrooming in Gweru, Kwekwe, Mutare, Masvingo and Harare. These are supported by civic society groups such as the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). However, all of them face the same fate as Radio Dialogue, with the continued government silence on licensing.
The prevailing situation in the country has led to the emergence of what the government calls ‘pirate’ radio stations – those stations that broadcast into Zimbabwe from outside the country. Notable among them is Radio VOP (Voice of the People), which broadcasts from a relay station in the Netherlands and SW Radio which broadcasts in English, Ndebele and Shona from the United Kingdom. Voice of America (VOA) also has a one hour news programme ‘Studio 7’ every weekday evening focusing on Zimbabwe. These stations have proved to be popular with the people, especially in the rural areas where there are no alternative sources of information. The country has also seen the emergence of internet radio stations such as Shaya FM and Nehanda Radio all of them based outside the country. However, it is difficult to ascertain the impact or popularity of these later stations, as internet bandwidth in Zimbabwe is limited.