BY NHAU MANGIRAZI
Zimbabwe’s newly-licensed community radios are facing “stillbirth” following a government directive that they can legally receive only 20% foreign capital injection, a move that would make it very difficult for resource-dry communities to start, operate and sustain the envisaged radio stations, media advocates have warned.
Media players are now calling on the government to consider newly-licensed community radio stations for sustainability packages to prop up community social development and giving a voice to marginalised communities.
Media Institute of Southern Africa director Tabani Moyo raised concern about the predicament of the community radios during the organisation’s recent annual general meeting.
‘‘Licensing of community radios was a welcome move, but they face challenges of stillbirth given the set conditions,” Moyo said.
“The pluralistic approach of giving a voice to the voiceless to enhance democracy will not come to fruition. Licensed community radio stations have 18 months to be on air.
“With both economic and political challenges in our country, some (new radios) got government financial support while some got assistance from civil society organisations (CSOs), including Misa—Zimbabwe, that helped some of the initiatives.
“Government is geared to assist those radio stations it helped get licenses.”
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He added: “By so doing, the impression is that after 18 months, those assisted by CSOs will lose their licences due to economic pressure.
“On the other hand, reality is that established radios like ZiFM Stereo with units all over the country are battling to unlock revenue for sustainability.
“If you give a newly-established community radio station 18 months to go on air, say Patsaka in Kariba, with a law that forbids foreign donations, how do you want them to sustain themselves?
“How will they procure infrastructure and recruit personnel that will produce content?
“All these are issues of grave concern as they have serious implications on the future of expression of media freedom in Zimbabwe.
“Regrettably, Zimbabwe and Africa in general is a radio community and we, therefore, need to invest more on sustainability of community radio stations as the government is limiting how citizens can express themselves, share information and how they relate with surrounding environment.”
Moyo argued that it did not make sense for the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) to insist on 20% capital investment in community radios.
‘‘How can 20% help a community radio, which is a capital investment project and the BAZ outlaw capital injection, limiting it to 20%?
“It means you are protecting only the voices of the ruling elite, while pushing away prospective investors in the media industry, yet the mantra is that Zimbabwe is open for business?
“The proposed amendment of the BAZ Bill outlawed foreign donations. How do you expect them to gain revenue when our economy is struggling in all sectors?”
Moyo said what was worrisome was that BAZ was not independent in awarding licences.
Media advocate and trainer Rashweat Mukundu said funding of community radios should come with guarantees for editorial independence.
‘‘The issue of independence of community radio stations is very critical as a platform for the community and this means that the funding for a community radio station must come without any strings attached,” he said.
“In some countries, the mechanism for support for community radio stations is made so transparent and non-political.
“If the government has interest in supporting community radio stations, there is need for a very transparent and independent mechanism that does not entail community radio stations to pay back with propaganda.”
Mukundu said it was not a bad thing for the government to support community radio stations, but there must be mechanisms that aid accountability.
‘‘We need to separate the roles of the funder from the organisation receiving funds. We need to protect the independence of the community radio stations.
“The issues of sustainability of these radio stations is a critical one because many of them have no funding as the communities are poor to carry the burden of buying equipment, to sustain the operational costs of community radio stations,” he said.
“Our hope is that communities, regardless of their economic conditions, will still help in one way or the other in showing their commitment to supporting their own station.
“If international donors, government and any other players come on board, they are there to promote the voices of those communities and not necessary to influence them, be it political, and support the given positions.
“This is a discussion that needs to be taken at national policy level in terms of funding for media to ensure that community radio stations are freed from political influence.”
Golden Maunganidze, who was recently retained as Misa Zimbabwe chairperson, called for the genuine opening of the airwaves.
‘‘BAZ must license more players in radio sector from different backgrounds to ensure that there is diversity and pluralism in the broadcasting sector,” he said.
“Newly-licensed community radio stations must jealously guard and protect their editorial independence by ensuring that their editorials are defined and underpinned in the pursuit of inclusive social development agenda.
“Programming should be for the communities as envisaged by the African Charter on Broadcasting.
“BAZ must ensure that the broadcasting fund is channelled toward the viability and sustainability of community radio stations as they are the heartbeat of development and democracy at community and grassroots level.
“Government must seriously consider a media sustainability bailout rescue package in the form of taxable duties, among other incentives on mass media production and distribution, equipment, etc.”
Zimbabwe is battling to spruce its image by freeing airwaves and allowing new broadcasting players as it has had only one television station inherited from Rhodesia after independence in 1980, while the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation had been enjoying a monopoly over radio stations.