By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha
Since 1980, when the country attained independence from British colonial rule, its broadcasting system has remained largely fettered. There has been a clear reluctance to open up the sector which has potential to reach to millions and millions of Zimbabweans, especially in the rural areas.
Only the government through the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has been the sole provider of broadcasting services in the country. The broadcaster has been accused of airing politically biased programming as well as purveying ZANU PF propaganda. Despite the fact that country’s Supreme Court quashed ZBC’s broadcasting monopoly in 2000, no new private broadcasters have been licensed.
However, in 2008, after nearly a decade of political problems in Zimbabwe, three political parties including ZANU PF, MDC-T and MDC-N signed a Global Political Agreement which established a new coalition government in the country. Article 19 of the pact recognised the importance of freedom of expression and a diverse media sector as a key issue in Zimbabwe trajectory.
However, very little progress has been made since the agreement was signed, except for the licensing of new papers, which somewhat improved media freedom and diversity indicators in the country. In the broadcasting sector, there has been very little progress.
As a result, analysts have been closely watching the process of awarding radio licenses and so far it has been marred by controversy with President Robert Mugabe’s political party being accused of hamstringing the process. Since the call for licences was made, fourteen companies applied to be considered for the two available licenses.
After the vetting process, only four companies are currently under consideration and these include, Vox Media Productions, Hot Media (Kiss FM), AB Communications and Zimpapers Newspapers (Zimpapers).
The shortlisting of Zimpapers, which is state-controlled and reports issues largely in favour of President Mugabe’s ZANU PF political party has stirred some controversy. There are fears that Zimpapers Radio will not bring to the airwaves anything substantially different from what is already being broadcast by ZBC.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), a media advocacy group, condemned the shortlisting of Zimpapers, which already owns a significant share of the newspaper and magazine market, arguing that granting the newspaper company a license will not promote diversity.
“There is a worry that Zimpapers already has omni-presence in the print and that it now wants to crowd out the broadcasting sector where we have people who have been waiting for licences for a long time, such as community broadcasters. As Misa, we would have wanted diversity,” said Njabulo Ncube, MISA-Zimbabwe chairman.
In spite of the movements in the broadcasting sector, it appears that very little change will happen in the near future. It will continue to be difficult for citizens to have access to a free, fair reporting especially if the broadcasting space is not opened up. In the absence of serious political reform, freedom of the media in Zimbabwe will continue to be a pipe dream.