The world over, community radio is synonymous with development, as it is a tool for transforming societies through placing the means of communication in the hands of the community. Community radio’s focus on development does not however mean that community radio exists to predominantly serve the interests of Government, but that of the community. As such, it can only complement Government efforts in the development trajectory.
The development of community radio in Zimbabwe has been one of the slowest in Southern Africa, together with that of Eswatini and Botswana who till date have no licensed community radio stations. Whereas the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) of 2001 introduced for the first time the legality of the concept of community radio in Zimbabwe, this did not translate into any immediate determination on the part of Government to license community radios.
Instead, what Zimbabwe witnessed was the deliberate politicising of the concept of community radio, without embracing the developmental and community empowering agenda that it seeks to serve. This was compounded by the unavailability of locally grounded information distribution platforms seeking to promote community participation in development, coupled with the existence of a state monopolised broadcasting sector which at the time was dominated by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).
The above scenario gave reason for active lobby and advocacy work for the licensing of community radios in Zimbabwe so as to promote the establishment of locally grounded information distribution platforms. The genesis of community radio lobby and advocacy work has its origins in the work of media freedom advocacy organisations namely the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Zimbabwe) and the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (ZACRAS). The latter has spearheaded community radio lobby and advocacy work in the past decade.
It has to be stated that the inability of Government to license community radios since 2001 is largely attributable to a lack of political will to empower communities to own and control their own means of communication. This is evidenced by the different reasons (excuses) proffered by different Government representatives over the years. Some of the reasons given were the absence of a definition of a community, unavailability of frequencies for community radios, inability of existing broadcasting infrastructure to accommodate new broadcasting entries and limited capacity of the broadcasting regulator (BAZ) to monitor and regulate the activities of new players.
The reason given of equipment unavailability was quite misplaced (if not laughable) given the fact that as far back as September 2011, it was reported that Zimbabwe had bought community broadcasting equipment in the form of transmitters, antennas and general hardware. One can only wonder where that equipment is almost 9 years later.
In 2014, a Government commissioned Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) traversed the length and breadth of Zimbabwe seeking to establish the information and media needs of Zimbabwe. Part of the feedback that was gathered from the outreach was the call by Zimbabweans for Government to license community radios so as to spur locally led development. However, this again did not translate to any urgency on the part of Government to license community radios.
Instead, we witnessed no movement on the part of Government to democratise the broadcasting space and empower communities by licensing community radios. Rather, Government opted to pursue the commercial aspect of broadcasting by licensing local commercial stations in 2015.
The quantitative increase of broadcast media did not however transform in broadcasting diversity, especially in terms of the ownership structure of the new media players who to a large extent had links to the ruling establishment. Noting that the newly licensed players were commercial and prioritised profit, shareholder and advertisers’ needs more than development, this therefore meant that the community radio void was still visible for all to see.
Immediately after the licencing of the local commercial players, we saw the dissolution of the then Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) Board whose term had ended. For the next four years, Zimbabwe did not witness any significant transformation of the broadcasting space.
Whereas it has been long in coming, the lobby and advocacy work of ZACRAS in the quest to have licensed community radios in Zimbabwe has begun to bear fruits, albeit incremental.
It is only recently that Government has begun taking visible steps in seeking to license community radios including taking on board recommendations from stakeholders. The first signs were seen in July 2019 when, after 4 years, a substantive BAZ Board was appointed. This was also around the time that Government had started disclosing the number of frequencies set aside for community radios including conducting community radio sensitisation meetings whereupon priority was mainly on engaging local leadership at the exclusion of the majority of the community members.
More recently, Government, through the Ministry of Information, gazetted the frequency allotment plan and the community radio regulations which outline application and operational procedures for community radios in Zimbabwe.
The drafting and eventual publication of the regulations was done following engagements by ZACRAS with the Ministry on the need for Zimbabwe to have stand-alone community radio regulations which will guide the operations of the sector. This proposal from ZACRAS came after the identification of a number of gaps within the BSA which created room for different interpretation in the absence of a clear guideline. Amongst these identified gaps was the absence of a clear definition of a community which had historically been a contentious issue.
In the past, there was always a grey area in terms of the actual number of frequencies available for community radios. Resultantly, the publishing of the frequency allotment plan helped put to rest some of the questions that stakeholders had.
If we are to go by what Government is saying, we are almost coming full circle regarding the establishment of licensed community radios in Zimbabwe. Whereas this will be a long awaited positive development in Zimbabwe, there however still exist concerns and fears that Government will either seek to license their kith and kin or those whom they can easily control and influence. Such fears are understandable if we look at both historical and contemporary developments around community radio developments in Zimbabwe.
Firstly, the Government of Zimbabwe through the Ministry of Information has indicated that it will be an active player in the setting up of community radio stations and the provision of technical support. This can also be linked to the prescriptive approach taken by the Government in drafting the community radio regulations whereby it has prescribed who “shall” be in the community radio governing body. This on its own is an indication of a Government obsessed with control, in terms of ownership and the narrative, including seeking to elbow out stakeholders who might want to assist in community radio development in Zimbabwe.
The Ministry of Information should not be an active player in the set up and operations of community radio. In line with their mandate, the role of the Ministry should be confined to setting the policy direction of the media sector including ensuring the existence of a conductive operational environment. On the other hand, BAZ should continue with its regulatory mandate including setting the technical standards so as to ensure the flourishing of the community broadcasting sector.
We might be in the 2nd republic; however, we still have a Ministry of Information which still has remnants of the 1st republic in terms of not wanting to democratically open up the broadcasting space. As Zimbabwe is undergoing the law reform process, we need to acknowledge that there are some problems and challenges which cannot be fixed by the law only. There is need for institutional reform, especially by the Ministry of Information, so that they are more open minded around issues of community broadcasting including embracing stakeholders who want to assist in taking the community radio agenda forward.
While the Ministry has made an effort to engage stakeholders and in some instances take on board recommendations, there is a feeling that the Ministry is not being totally sincere in how it is going about democratising the community radio space as seen by its exclusionary approach. It goes without saying that the world over, the development of community radio has been supported by different stakeholders amongst them the community itself, development partners, civil society and Government.
Secondly, part of the members of the recently constituted BAZ Board are war veterans including known political party players. Historically, the country has witnessed the modus operandi of war veterans and partisan interests that they serve. Hence one is forced to question if indeed they will seek to be objective and non-partisan in their approach. This also comes against the background of one top Government Official having said that the new BAZ Board must give a strategic direction to the firm that reflects the interests of those in power.
Thirdly, the exclusionary manner in which the Ministry of Information led community radio sensitisation meetings were held also left a lot to be desired. The priority of the meetings was on mainly engaging modern and traditional leadership. This exclusionary approach was further replicated in the recently gazetted community radio regulations, as highlighted in an earlier point, whereupon it was stated that the community radio governing board “shall” be constituted of individuals drawn from certain backgrounds including law and order and local and traditional leadership.
The above criterion renders the community powerless in terms of ownership and control of the station and leaves them susceptible to being used to simply legitimise a flawed ownership process of a community radio. Barring politicians, the fact that someone is a legitimate member of a particular community is reason enough for them to be considered for a position in the community radio governing body. This is moreso noting that community radio is inclusive and not discriminatory based on either your local standing or background.
Fourthly, the frequency allotment plan recently gazetted by Government is commercial-centric as witnessed by the high number of frequencies set aside for possible commercial broadcasters, with a limited number having been set aside for community radios. This can maybe be said to be seeking to align to Government’s mantra of “Zimbabwe is open for business” which has seen the pursuit of a neoliberal agenda which is now even cascading to the media. One is then tempted to think that maybe Government is only seeking to make cosmetic changes to the broadcasting space so as to silence lobbyists who have been advocating for community radios in Zimbabwe.
The licensing of community radios will indeed be a turning point in Zimbabwe’s broadcasting history. We remain hopeful that, for a change, the Government of Zimbabwe will do right by its people by democratically transforming the broadcasting space instead of seeking to push partisan interests.
If fears are confirmed and history repeats itself, we will live to fight another day!
Source: Vivienne Marara
*Vivienne Marara is a Communication for Development Practitioner and writes in her personal capacity. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org