End of a Monopoly

Zimbabwe’s airwaves will never be the same after the Supreme Court granted Capital Radio on Sept. 22 the right to operate a privately owned broadcasting station, effectively nullifying the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s (ZBC) monopoly. The government’s dithering in implementing the court decision got a mixed public reception, judging by how the country’s press reported the landmark ruling.

Since the promulgation of the 1957 Broadcasting Act, ZBC, formerly the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation, has been the sole radio and television broadcaster in the country. As a result, ZBC has been found wanting in giving fair coverage to all views, with fingers pointing to its unashamed stance as a mouthpiece for the ruling Zimbabwe Africa National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), more so during this year’s general elections.

The liberalization of Zimbabwe’s electronic media follows a cue from the print media, where the government’s newspaper stable has been challenged by the establishment of new privately owned newspapers.

Capital Radio, owned by veteran broadcaster and former ZBC presenter Gerry Jackson and Michael Auret, Jr., gave the government a bloody nose in the Supreme Court. But Jonathan Moyo, minister of information and publicity, soon ordered the police to seize Capital Radio’s equipment and harass its directors, claiming the station could not operate without a government inspection and a license, a move the privately owned Daily News (Oct. 6) described as “fascist.” This was despite a High Court order barring police from seizing the equipment.

The independent weekly Financial Gazette contended that the government, apart from being reluctant to allow an alternative voice on the air, wants to secure President Robert Mugabe’s seat ahead of the 2002 presidential elections. “If this is not a flagrant travesty of justice and a high-handed insult to the intelligence of the nation, then we do not know what is,” commented the Financial Gazette (Oct. 12-18).

In defending its move to keep Capital Radio off the air, the government cited the color and citizenship of the station’s directors. “[They] are white, and one of them, Gerry Jackson, has been confirmed to be British,” Moyo said in a front-page article in the Daily News (Oct. 12). “We are going to make sure that no single foreigner will get a license to broad cast in this country...particularly if [he] is a Briton.”

Moyo’s tantrums about national sovereignty and security are nothing new within government circles. “This is a government under siege..., listening with mounting trepidation as the bell for its demise tolls louder and louder,” the Daily News (Oct. 6) commented. “The hastily prepared law on broadcasting is a typical example of the government’s determination to gag any independent media. The provisions are so restrictive it will be a miracle for any application to be approved unless the applicant has ‘friends in high places’ or is prepared to forget the fairness and balance that is the cornerstone of...the dissemination of information in a democracy.”

But The Zimbabwe Mirror, a privately owned weekly with pro-government leanings, had a different view of the Supreme Court ruling, calling it the most “disgusting” example of judicial abdication of responsibility. While conceding that the court was correct in ruling that ZBC’s monopoly was unconstitutional, The Mirror opposed the court’s declaration that Capital Radio could start broadcasting immediately, arguing that the station had been operating illegally in a pirate fashion. “All law-abiding patriots must be concerned when the Supreme Court...not only creates a legal vacuum but also cynically stands aside, gleefully observing the ensuing chaos.”

The opposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent (Sept. 29) interpreted the ruling differently, as a small first step in freeing the airwaves. “The freedom we have today is...ground seized and defended by all those...who believe in freedom of expression. We are not about to give that up to a regime that has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to democratic values.”