Zimbabwe: Broadcast Blues

A new act on broadcasting in Zimbabwe, signed into law on April 4 by President Robert Mugabe, represents a carte blanche move to police journalists and control the flow of information.

The Broadcasting Services Bill, which has been in the making for the past six months, was passed through presidential decree even after it was shot down by a parlimentary legal committee chaired by Edson Zvobgo, legal guru of the Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

“In a democratic society government has no greater right to be heard than anyone else. The imposition of government’s views on every broadcaster is an unconstitutional infringement of the right to freedom of expression,” the committee wrote.

Under the new act, the government will issue only one license to a national radio broadcaster and one license to a national television broadcaster. The act effectively reverses a ruling by the Supreme Court last October that ended the 43-year monopoly of the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).

“It is a fascist piece of legislation,” Tendai Biti, legal strategist of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told journalist Dumisani Muleya of the opposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent (April 6). “The increased repression which the bill represents reflects Mugabe’s declining power.”

Adding to the onslaught on media pluralism is an arbitrary 75-percent “local content requirement,” which has scared many Zimbabweans. The parliamentary committee observed that this content threshold “is not a laudable purpose at all” since foreign news is a necessary part of any democracy.

“One’s culture and traditions are inalienable, and people do not lose their culture or traditions simply because they are subjected to foreign ones,” wrote the centrist Zimbabwe Mirror (April 6).

Zimbabwe’s only privately owned daily, the Daily News, commented that “a number of sinister considerations, such as ZANU-PF’s never-ending desire to control...the entire population…are what was behind the enactment of this unfortunate law” (April 7).

Another nail in the coffin of media freedom was the curtailment of foreign ownership in broadcasting. Under the new law, individuals cannot own more than a 10-percent stake in broadcasting companies. Broadcasting licences, valid for one year for community stations and two years for commercial stations, will only be issued to registered companies.

“If you give somebody a license for a long time, they become more powerful than the people,” Zimbabwe’s permanent secretary for information and publicity, George Charamba, told a recent media workshop in Harare.

“What we need to do is to stimulate this nascent industry of...creative talents by mak-ing resources, training, and facilities available to [Zimbabweans],” Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo told the government-owned Herald (April 5).

But for many outside the ZANU-PF camp, the promulgation of the new act—whose constitutionality is expected to be challenged in the courts—was the government’s worst affront yet to freedom of expression.

The Zimbabwe Independent (April 6) saw it as “the ruling party’s determination to prevent any opinion other than its own from prevailing....It has been tailored to fit the ruling party’s narrow and antidemocratic agenda.”

Capital Radio, which last year successfully challenged the monopoly of the ZBC, may be off the air pending the awarding of an official broadcasting license. The feisty radio station, owned by veteran broadcaster Gerry Jackson and former ZBC presenter Michael Auret Jr., is calling for the freeing of the air waves in a print advertising campaign.

“Community matters, by their very nature, are often political matters. Why can’t all citizens talk about, and listen to, all political issues if they want to?” asked one advertisement.

A major victory for the government, the new law represents yet another defeat in the battle for media freedom in Zimbabwe.

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