The government’s swift move to bar Econet Media’s pay TV service last week was predictable, but deeply worrying because the regime is once again demonstrating that it is averse to reforms.
Zimbabwe’s broadcasting sector remains largely backward because of the Zanu PF government’s fear to open up to private players — typical of dictatorships.
Econet launched Kwese TV in 2015 and the service has been growing exponentially in other African countries since then.
The mobile operator announced last week that it was introducing its service in Zimbabwe.
This invited an immediate and menacing reaction from the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), which claimed that Kwese TV had no authority to roll out its service in the country because it was not registered.
President Robert Mugabe’s regime has an unenviable reputation of shutting out alternative voices.
For several years the government has fought tooth and nail to preserve the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) monopoly to serve Zanu PF interests.
ZBC is a sorry excuse for a public broadcaster as its partisanship and bias towards Zanu PF can only be eclipsed by similar institutions that exist in North Korea.
In the past few years there have been feeble attempts to open up commercial radio broadcasting but licences were only given to the state-controlled Zimpapers and businesspeople linked to the ruling party and security institutions.
Therefore, BAZ’s move to pull the plug on Kwese TV was mainly premised on political interests.
Zanu PF still holds on to archaic views that it can control information dissemination even in this digital age.
However, the bigger scandal is that BAZ is frustrating Kwese TV in order to protect the government’s commercial interests.
The Zimbabwe government has shares in satellite TV player Multchoice Africa, a South African company that runs the DStv service.
Strive Masiyiwa’s Kwese TV is a direct competitor for DStv, where the government has shares. Such double standards expose the government’s lack of understanding of how free markets operate.
Three years ago, the Information ministry abruptly ended a partnership between ZBC and GOtv, a pan African satellite TV service that targeted the low-end market.
The collapse of the GOtv deal, showed that the government neither had the resources nor capital to enter the digital age in broadcasting.
The same government has missed several deadlines to move the country’s broadcasting systems from analogue to digital and yet it is denying local companies with capital the space to fill the void.
It is not BAZ’s mandate to be the gatekeeper of an intolerant government.
The Kwese TV ban shows that the time has come for legislators and those interested in growing our democracy to seriously push for media reforms and the democratisation of the broadcasting sector.