On December 17, 2020, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) gave all of us an unexpected Christmas gift in the form of licensing of three community radio initiatives, a development which several media advocacy groups reacted positively to, most notably the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (Zacras), which welcomed the development and expressed hope that the other seven applicants awaiting determination by BAZ at the time, would also be licensed. This is a long journey which started several years back with many stakeholders both in and outside of the media sector playing various roles including civil society organisations that chose to mainstream community broadcasting advocacy in their work.
By Kudzai Kwangwari
There was equal resistance from especially government representatives particularly successive government ministers of media, who expressed doubt and mostly concern that there was a push for a neocolonial agenda through community radio. Tichaona Jokonya (may his dear soul rest in eternal peace) said, “we need to check what this means”, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu (may his dear soul rest in eternal peace) asked who was behind it, Webster Shamu, asked who is community, Christopher Mushohwe remained mum, George Charamba spoke of synthetic communities, Simon Khaya Moyo promised to talk about it, saying he had an open door policy, Jonathan Moyo said, “agents of regime change”, lastly, Monica Mutsvangwa said come let’s talk about it.
So it moved from denial, to questioning, to acknowledging, to promising and promising until lastly licensing on December 17, 2020. The community radio movements led initially by Misa Zimbabwe, Radio Dialogue in Bulawayo and lately Zacras declared: one can’t stop an idea whose time has come….
So it came to pass that as people were readying for the traditional annual shut down preparing for Christmas, which no longer means what it meant in the early days of our political independence when communities in Zimbabwe would feast and be happy— today we say “no longer at ease”. Tinoti ‘chaiseva chava kutemura’. [Life has become tough].
The announcement by BAZ brought an early Christmas, and not that this is a gift, but a right which they had to respond to by providing before people start demanding. In my media advocacy work, I have learnt that rights are not privileges that are enjoyed based on the discretion of someone, but they are entitlements that are demanded. We owe BAZ and the government nothing, if for anything, they owe us an apology for leaving or neglecting communities in Zimbabwe to go for so long without fully enjoying their right to free expression and access to information. They must explain to Zimbabweans why it had to take four decades to have licensed functional community radio stations in Zimbabwe when it’s known that these are key tools for spurring development and democracy. Countries like South Africa, who gained their political independence 14 years later took a lot less to open up and democratise broadcasting media with a plethora of well-supported, vibrant, and flourishing community radios now available.
It is my submission that if community radios had been licensed early and operating well in our communities with the pre-requisite editorial independence, we would have been having better elections, better gender just societies, better service delivery, better citizen participation, and more democratic society. One can only conclude that it is governments that fear their own people that avoid possibilities of open societies where there is free flow of information and free expression.
The strong belief in this facility called community radio motivated Zacras, Misa Zimbabwe and other advocates to reach out to communities to assist them to set up their initiatives and support them from Ditito to Dombodema, Rusitu to Chirundu. It is the belief that with this facility, a better Zimbabwe is possible. The belief that with community radios, more resilient communities are possible. With this facility, disasters are better handled, and with this facility more responsive leadership is born. We believed.
At one of the Zanu PF national conferences in Bulawayo at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, Radio Dialogue, one of the pioneers of community radio in Zimbabwe, was mentioned among so-called pressure groups that need to be dealt with. The desire and import of this declaration must be clear to all progressive peoples when a ruling party identifies a mere community radio as requiring such negative attention. With this attitude we witnessed several incidents of arbitrary arrests and intimidation of community radio activists. The effect of it was to instill fear in citizens and make people believe that something was terribly wrong with the idea of community radio. The intention was to make citizens believe that community radio was something political and therefore anti-government. To make people shy away from anything to do with community radio work, but together we fought and together we achieved.
The purpose of this article is to acknowledge this important development, appreciate efforts by various players thus far, appreciate government response through BAZ, but also and most importantly propose a way forward and flag out what we need to pay attention to be based on the philosophy that rights are not negotiated for but fought for. The late vice-president Joshua Nkomo once said that during the fight for liberation, they at some point, did not know that some laws could be challenged, some broken if they negate the ability of citizens to enjoy rights. Do we learn anything from history?
Now that we have three community radios licensed, six supposed independent television stations, and three campus radios in a space of three months, must we celebrate and assume a sense of arrival? Must we down our tools and say, what we fought for, we gained therefore we rest? NO. My view is that we need to interrogate the move by government to license community radios now. What does it mean? Is the government giving in? Is this a strategic move by government? Has the government all of a sudden now developed a desire to serve the people and respond to people’s needs? Who is their key beneficiary in this move? If they feared community radios in the early 2000, what has changed now? In asking all these questions we must be guided by the broader objective of promoting access to information and freedom of expression to spur development and deepen democracy. Remember, we don’t necessarily fight for licensing, but what the licensing is able to do as means to advance access to information, citizen participation, and development of a democratic society. While media can be the greatest victim of democratic deficiency, it is also key to promoting and protecting democratic practice.
On one occasion George Charamba once said, we will render Zacras useless by licensing community radios. In this statement there is an unholy desire and wish to have Zacras extinguished. This is unfortunate. Must this happen?
There is, therefore, need to position media development organisations such that they are prepared to provide both technical and financial support to these licensed stations without neglecting those that might not have applied or were turned down. There is need to create a bigger and strengthened movement by roping in campus radio stations (both licensed and those yet to be licensed) so that they are part of Zacras for instance. This way there is consolidation of voices and influence creating a critical mass.
The media law and policy reform agenda remains key especially the need for the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) to be amended so that provisions, which are media unfriendly are removed. The implementation of all media law and policies needs to be pushed so that we can actualise what we clamour for going forward. Several media related laws that remain out of sync with the constitution must be attended to as a matter of urgency and especially because they have taken too long before they are amended to be in tandem with the supreme law of the land.
There is need to strengthen the content production capacity of all these licensed media organisations especially community radio initiatives but also including TV stations. This is a key and central area of media because content is what transforms communities. While only Zimbabwe and Eswathini (formerly Swaziland) had remained behind when it comes to broadcasting media diversity, the region is full of fully operational and vibrant broadcasting media that represents public, commercial and the community. It would be strategic for Zimabwe to draw lessons from these countries and strengthen our capacity as a country.
The government of Zimbabwe will need to genuinely change its attitude towards these new players and support them because they are truly agents of development and a tool for development. The Zimbabwe is open for business mantra adopted by the second republic must demonstrate in real terms its positive attitude towards free media by not attacking journalists and allowing them to work freely as professionals and by not targeting citizens, who choose to express themselves especially online through the untoward application of a looming Cyber Security and Data Protection Act. Government must take measures to ensure the protection of journalists as professionals as well as promoting media freedom as is the case in other progressive democracies.
So the struggle for community radio licensing in Zimbabwe has not ended, but it has just achieved a milestone, which we are happy about, but we need to actualise the bigger goal of access to information, freedom of expression and citizen participation. The licensing of these community radios must represent a real transformation of our media landscape and not just tokenism for public relations with the international community. It must be real and advocates must continue to push. The desire and propensity to control flow of information by government and other political elites must be cured and dealt with. Community radios must fight for real independence now and always, particularly editorial independence. The struggle for freedom of expression and access to useful information cannot be a part-time venture, but a lifetime struggle for which everyone must be prepared to pay the price.
As we approach 2023, the real test is coming. Governments have no natural inclination to do what citizens desire, they need to be pushed.
The struggle continues…..
# Beyond Tokenism…
l Kudzai Kwangwari is a media development practitioner. Here he writes in his personal capacity and can be reached on email@example.com or 0775093384.