MISA Zimbabwe Digest: Media issues in the 2019 budget

A lot of literature has been dedicated to the recently announced national budget. This short write-up adds to that body of literature by outlining how the same national budget will affect the areas of media, broadcasting and digital rights.

Unfortunately, the national budget does very little to promote media plurality and to protect digital rights as explained below.

Creation of biometric register

The Minister of Finance suggested the establishment of a biometric register for Zimbabwe’s civil servants. This is an attempt to identify and get rid of ghost workers from government’s payroll. This process will require the capturing of civil servants’ biometric features such as facial photographs and fingerprints.

On paper, this is a noble exercise. However, Zimbabwe currently does not have adequate data protection legislation that will ensure the safekeeping of information stored on such a database.

The legal protection of such data becomes even more urgent after revelations early this year that the Zimbabwean government has undertaken to transfer large amounts of data to Cloudwalk Enterprises. This Chinese based entity is creating Artificial Intelligence based facial recognition software that will be used by the Zimbabwean government to maintain public law and order.

The right to privacy as enshrined in the Zimbabwean Constitution means that government cannot unilaterally transfer citizen personal information to other countries without the knowledge and consent of the citizens concerned. Government must respect this constitutional right.

Furthermore, laws must be put in place to ensure that unauthorised use, and transfer of data is sanctioned.

Digitisation process

In Zimbabwe, broadcasting and media affairs fall under the auspices of the Monica Mutsvangwa-led Ministry of Information, Publicity, and Broadcasting Services. This ministry is responsible for overseeing Zimbabwe’s digitisation process that is almost four years behind schedule. $45 million was allocated to the ministry in the National Budget. This amount will cover the ministry’s administrative and project costs including the digitisation exercise.

Nick Mangwana, the ministry’s Permanent Secretary, revealed the digitisation project needed direct funding of an estimated $100 million for its completion. He made this revelation when he submitted his ministry’s budget estimates to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media and Broadcasting. Mangwana warned that inadequate budget allocations would further delay completion of the digitisation project.

In a report carried by The Herald in 2016, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe chief executive Obert Muganyura indicated that government needed $29 million to complete the exercise. This means the amount needed for the completion of the digitisation project has inexplicably tripled from an estimated $29 million in 2016 to $100 million in 2018.

MISA Zimbabwe therefore, urges government to audit the funds that have already been allocated to the digitisation process. There has been little transparency and reporting on how those funds were utilised. This audit process should also incorporate a regional comparative study to determine how much other countries spent to complete their digital switch over exercises.

This is necessary because digital migration will define and shape the future of the entire media and communications industry. The advancement of media plurality quiet literally hinges on the completion of the digitisation exercise.

Taxing of foreign satellite services

The national budget states that government will start taxing foreign based satellite broadcast services and online commercial services that provide services within Zimbabwe. This tax will come into effect on 1 January 2019 and is in line with this government’s drive to expand the tax base.

Services that are likely to be affected under this tax regime are satellite broadcasters such as DSTV and commercial website services such as Amazon and Alibaba. It remains to be seen whether this tax will extend to popular Video on Demand service providers such as Netflix and Showmax.

Zimbabwe is not the first African country to tax such services. In the United States, streaming services such as Netflix already pay taxes in States such as Chicago and Florida. Kenya has also mulled a tax targeting such services. Closer to home, Netflix owes the South African Film and Publication Board (FPB) an estimated R1, 5 billion in unpaid licensing fees.

Taxing online services that are not based within Zimbabwe’s borders is a tricky exercise that is hard to enforce. This is well illustrated by Netflix’s refusal to pay such fees in South Africa.

Enforcing the payment of such fees and taxes is near impossible. It is MISA Zimbabwe’s respectful submission that if government was to successfully tax these services then it should direct some of the funds towards development of the local media sector.

Merger of parastatals

The 2019 national budget is titled: Austerity for Prosperity, which is supposed to reflect government’s intention to cut down on expenditure and streamline spending. Some of government’s efforts include the proposed restructure and merger of parastatals or state-owned enterprises.

The national budget also calls for the liquidation of Kingstons (Private) Limited, an entity in which government has a controlling stake. Kingstons Enterprises operates two regional commercial radio stations namely, Capitalk 100.4FM in Harare and Nyami Nyami FM in Kariba.

Details of how this liquidation process will affect the two radio stations will be impacted are still unknown. MISA Zimbabwe will report on these developments as they unfold.

Earlier this year, government announced its intention to merge the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe with the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe. This proposed merger has formally been included in the national budget but without any allocation of funds towards the exercise.

The new body to be formed through this merger will be responsible for the licensing and regulation of both broadcasting and telecommunication services in Zimbabwe. South Africa introduced a similar regulatory model in 2000 with the creation of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).

Another merger that is on the cards is that of Powertel, Zarnet and Africom. Government has majority shareholding in these three Internet Service Providers and their merger will possibly cut down on the duplication of services. On the other hand, state-owned postal service provider ZIMPOST and telecommunications entities namely Tel-One, Net One and Telecel are all set to be privatised.

Lastly, the national budget states that New Ziana formerly known as Zimbabwe Inter-Africa News Agency, will be absorbed into a ministry. It is currently unknown as to which ministry will absorb New Ziana. MISA Zimbabwe suspects New Ziana will be absorbed into the Ministry of Information, Publicity, and Broadcasting. The budget is silent on the reconstitution of the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust which is supposed to hold the controlling shareholding in the ZIMPAPERS Group.

Source: MISA Zimbabwe

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