Zimbabwe: Radio stranglehold gagging freedom of expression
The Zimbabwean government’s continuing stranglehold on community radio and its refusal to issue licences to all but commercial operators with links to state-owned companies or those with government ties is a ploy to stifle freedom of expression, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
‘Beyond Tokenism: The need to license community radio stations in Zimbabwe’ also details the crackdown on those who have been campaigning for the licensing of community radio stations, in line with the country’s constitution. The police have arrested them, and state security agents have subjected them to surveillance, harassment and intimidation.
“Despite promises and laws enacted more than 14 years ago to free up the airwaves for much needed community radio services, the government of Zimbabwe has failed to deliver on its promises and commitments,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for Southern Africa.
Not only have the government supporters been the only ones to receive licences, but those attempting to set up independent services have been arrested and targeted simply for trying to educate, inform and offer a platform for debate. This is a violation of freedom of expression.
“Not only have the government supporters been the only ones to receive licences, but those attempting to set up independent services have been arrested and targeted simply for trying to educate, inform and offer a platform for debate. This is a violation of freedom of expression.”
Over the last 14 years the Zimbabwean government has embarked on an insidious two pronged attack to block independent community radio. Firstly with the refusal to issue licences, and secondly by targeting, harassing and intimidating those wishing to provide services.
Biased issuing of radio licences
In what was seen as a positive step, the Broadcasting Services Act in 2001 ended the monopoly of the state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH). It paved the way for a three-tier broadcasting system setting up the criteria and licensing process. Under the Act, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) can grant broadcasting licenses.
However, its independence and impartiality have been put into doubt given an emerging pattern where all the commercial broadcasting licenses granted to date have been to companies that are owned by or have close links to the ruling party.
To date, commercial broadcasting licences have been issued to 10 radio stations, two at the national level and eight local ones. However, these licenses have been issued to five companies that are owned or controlled by Zimbabwe Newspapers Private Limited, where the government is the majority shareholder, and the state-owned Kingstons Limited as well as other companies linked to the ruling party.
At least 28 independent community radio initiatives are waiting to be licensed. None has been granted a license in the last 14 years. Likewise, community activists across the country have told Amnesty International that the license fees are prohibitive for resource-poor communities.
“There is clearly a demand for community broadcasting services in Zimbabwe. Community radio can provide the life-blood of informed debate for rural and urban communities on matters of public interest and issues that directly affect them on a daily basis, be they social, economic or cultural,” said Deprose Muchena.
“The failure to grant licenses to community radio stations violates the right to freedom of expression. The Zimbabwean government must open up bids for the licensing of community radio stations with ownership that is free from political interference and affordable for some of the most marginalized areas of the country.”
Community radio initiatives under attack
Many community radio initiatives have also found themselves under sustained attack from the authorities.
In a bid to circumvent their inability to broadcast, many are currently using compact discs to disseminate information to their communities on topical issues in development including on HIV/AIDS, service delivery, family planning and how to improve community livelihoods.
On 17 June 2014, state security agents, including soldiers, raided Radio Kwelaz offices in the town of Kwekwe. They had a search warrant alleging that the community based organization was illegally broadcasting in contravention of the Broadcasting Services Act “or other laws in force in Zimbabwe”.
The state security agents seized laptops and 1,223 compact discs. The compact discs covered topics such as cancer, sexual violence, education and other issues affecting the local community. The community activists told Amnesty International that during the raid the security agents were not clear what crime had been committed.Charges against the community activists were later dropped.
On 1 March 2013, police in Bulawayo raided the offices of Radio Dialogue and confiscated some 180 radio sets. Police also arrested and interrogated the production manager Zenzele Ndebele before releasing him into the custody of his lawyers.
“These sustained attacks are clearly intended to intimidate those attempting to set up independent community radio services into silence. These people are being deliberately harassed purely for trying to positively impact on the lives of people, especially the low-income groups in urban and rural areas, who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream media,” said Deprose Muchena.
“Rather than targeting these potential service providers, the Zimbabwean government should embrace them as facilitators for development and the free exchange of information and ideas on matters of public interest.”
The International Telecommunications Union deadline for Zimbabwe to switch over to digital broadcasting is 17 June this year. Amnesty International is calling on the government to use this switchover to allow pluralism in the broadcasting communication sector by licensing community radio stations in rural and urban areas. Among other recommendations, Amnesty International is calling for the Government of Zimbabwe to:
- Ensure that the right to freedom of expression and right to information are enjoyed by everyone in Zimbabwe.
- Allow sufficient access for broadcasting licences, particularly at community level, to ensure pluralism of voice in debates.
- Fully respect editorial and programming independence of community radio stations.
The organization is calling on the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe to:
- Adopt an open-ended mechanism of licensing of community broadcasting services by accepting applications any time of the year.
- Lower the fees for licenses to ease the financial burden for applicants for community broadcasting services.
The international community should urge the government of Zimbabwe to fully and effectively fulfil its obligations with regard to the right to freedom of expression and the right to information.
This report is a qualitative study, conducted between August 2014 and May 2015, focussing on Zimbabwe’s failure and/or refusal to license community radio stations since 2001, despite existing legal frameworks providing for such. It looks at the Constitution of Zimbabwe and the Broadcasting Services Act, the two key pieces of legislation which provide the legal framework for the licensing of broadcasting services.
The report also looks at the country’s obligations under international human rights law, experiences of people attempting to obtain community licenses and identifies the gaps that exist between policy and practice.
The report is being launched prior to 17 June 2015, the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) deadline for Zimbabwe to digitalize its broadcasting services. In 2006 ITU member states agreed by consensus to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting and the deadline of 17 June 2015 was set for a range of countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.