Zim media policy, still political?

Media deregulation and the promotion of media diversity and plurality is not Zanu PF policy by choice.

Column by with Rashweat Mukundu

This is due to the party’s ideology that promotes a centralised control of all facets of life. The party, as President Robert Mugabe always preaches, is supreme and makes decisions on behalf of society.

A one dimensional view of society is preferred with no dissenting voices outside the mainstream political framework. It is in light of this context and dominant thinking that 25 new radio stations are set to be licensed.

The party is, however, embracing media diversity as a result of circumstances beyond its control.

These include the ended Government of National Unity politics, social pressure and the changing global, information and technological set-up.

It is also just not sounding rights to have State media monopolies in the 21st century.

Even in China technology has opened a floodgate of citizen journalism that the political elite cannot push back.

Others will argue that Zanu PF is a learning party, the learning, however, seems to be centred narrowly on adopting new methods of maintaining political power and control.

It is with this limited approach to media policy that Media, Information and Broadcasting Services ministry secretary George Charamba informed Parliament last week that 25 new radio stations will be licensed in 2014.

The move is welcome and will change the face of Zimbabwe’s media, add new opportunities for wealth and employment generation and enhance the sharing of information.

While saying so, the key drawback is that Zanu PF is yet to convince society on its genuineness regarding media diversity and plurality.
The party and government are simply responding to pressure and looking at this policy issue from a narrow political perspective.

It is for this reason that when Media, Information and Broadcasting deputy minister Supa Mandiwanzira talked of the reasons why we need more radio stations, his focus was on shutting out what Zanu PF calls pirate radio stations by crowding them out of the space.
In other words Zanu PF and the government’s media policy is not in tandem with the avowed party’s developmental agenda and thrust which is to empower and use national resources for the development of society.

The licensing of the 25 stations is not being talked of in developmental terms, hence, do not engender public confidence in the process.

On the contrary, media in Zimbabwe is seen from the narrow premise of it either being a mouthpiece of the ruling elite or of opposition groups.

While Media, Information and Broadcasting Services minister Jonathan Moyo has attempted to debunk this thinking, the reality on the ground, especially on broadcasting policy points otherwise.
So in opening the media space, the key determinant for Zanu PF is licensing stations controlled by political allies and not opponents, real or perceived.

I say this noting that the initial process that saw ZiFM and Star FM being licensed was opaque.

That in itself was not caused by the two stations, but a problem arising from the structure that manages the licensing process.
The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) is one of the most secretive and opaque organisations that has not seen the need to build social relations or openness on its operations.

There is, therefore, no public confidence in the work of BAZ and its adjudication of the licensing of the 25 radio stations will still remain contested.

BAZ itself has not sought, this far, to free itself from political control by stating its developmental goals. BAZ is therefore seen as a political tool of control.

With politics taking precedence over development, the licensing of the 25 radio stations will seal Zimbabwe media policy as far less developmental, but a reflection of power and chaos.

What we see in this power-view policy framework is a reflection of authority and where Zanu PF desires so, benevolence.

Media policy is taken to be the view of those in power and them alone. While there appears to be compromise on the part of Zanu PF, there is also an indication of control writ-large.

The new stations will be limited to cities or towns; all will transmit via the State-owned Transmedia hence pay fees to Transmedia.

Ultimately, what we will have are not independent radio stations, but semi-independent commercial radio stations, under the tight leash of BAZ in terms of content, fees and geographical reach.

The message is clear, the licenses can go anytime.

Final power is being highlighted by Zanu PF and media policy is not developmental, but a political theatre.

When all is said and done, we still hope that Zimbabwe will have 25 radio stations and community radio stations soon.

The experience with Star FM and ZiFM at least for me has been gratifying.

The two have endeavoured to be balanced and afford as many voices a chance to be heard even under difficult political and economic circumstances.

ZBC’s Spot FM, despite the chaos, is a marvel to listen to especially the phone-in in public interest programmes. This is what competition does.

The lesson is that whatever the political interests behind
media policy, society itself has the power to push back against intrusion into free thinking by rejecting the product or influencing change from outside.

In this regard the 25 stations will not all play Zanu PF jingles, for they may as well lose society in that process.

The struggle is now for citizens to demand a media that plays a role in enhancing development.

This is a media that is not only owned by those with money and connected in Harare and other cities, but a media that is also owned by the poor in rural areas.

My concern is that while politics drives Zanu PF as is expected of any political party, the technocrats in the ministry appear more political than the politicians.

Balance and rationality in policy development is thus missed.

Charamba and Moyo have a chance to move Zimbabwe’s media to the next stage as long as they limit political influence and raise developmental imperatives of the media as well as freedom of expression rights as a cornerstone of media policy.

The very thing that Zanu PF fears, our continued subjugation as a country, is catalysed by attempting to control how and what people think and say.

Our media policy has this far been dominated by too much of poor information, poor process, false perceptions, flawed cause-effect views and inconsistencies.

ZBC is a case in point, and Charamba says he was unaware.

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