Home » General » Underdevelopment of Zim’s Broadcast Industry Inexcusable [opinion]

TOMORROW, February 13, 2015, most of the world celebrates World Radio Day. But with a glaringly underdeveloped broadcasting industry, Zimbabweans unfortunately have very little to celebrate. Proclaimed on November 3, 2011 by the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) at the organisation’s 36th General Conference in recognition of the importance of radio to nations and to communities within nations, World Radio Day is now annually celebrated on 13 February, which is the anniversary of the 1946 establishment of the United Nations (UN) Radio. It is not only the UN Radio that is cherished on World Radio Day. National, commercial, and community radio stations are also recognised on that day, for their utility to the democratic process and to the development trajectory of their respective nations and communities.The world over, radio is now a well-established medium of mass communication, and a primary component of the industry that is now widely known as the ‘mass media,’ or simply ‘the media.’ In technical terms, radio may be defined as the wireless transmission or radiation of electromagnetic signals through the atmosphere. Information, sound, news, speech, or music, are conveyed from a sender to a receiver by systematically modulating or changing some property of the radiated waves, such as their amplitude, frequency, phase, or pulse width. When radio waves strike an electrical conductor, the oscillating fields induce an alternating current in the conductor. The information in the waves can be extracted and transformed back into its original form through a receiver or gadget that most people know as the ‘radio set,’ or ‘radio.’

No doubt, the vast majority of citizens are not too familiar with that rather complicated scientific definition, or nature and character of radio — and they really need not be experts on those aspects if they are not actual or aspiring technicians in broadcasting. For most people, all they know is that through radio they can enjoy or download the traditional output of the mass media that is education, information and entertainment.

From the early days of its introduction in the 1920s, radio has been a significant channel for the citizen’s enjoyment of the twin fundamental rights of Freedom of Expression and of the Media and Access to Information. Even in this 21st Century, radio remains a very important medium of communication because it provides a media opportunity for people who cannot access television and who cannot, for one reason or other, read newspapers, magazines or other print media, for news and for trends of interest. Even the illiterate or those with visual impairments are able to access information via radio.

Radio provides portable entertainment and information, with many individuals nowadays constantly listening to radio in their cars, or while being transported on public transport vehicles even on their mobile phones or transistor headphones.

Radio is important in both developing and fully developed countries for information download. It is particularly important in developing countries like Zimbabwe, where the transmission reach of the television signal is generally, very limited and where the cost of newspapers and magazines is generally prohibitive for the largely impoverished populace. The information that is instantaneously available on radio may be broadcast to a large number of listeners, at negligible or no cost.

Whereas students in developed nations or in urban locations in developing countries benefit educationally from Internet services, in remote communities or underdeveloped countries that have limited or no access to the Internet, radio could play a positive role by airing educational programmes that are specifically geared for school-going listeners. This aspect is particularly important now, as this year’s edition of World Radio Day is celebrated under the theme: “Youth and Radio.”

Youths are undoubtedly poised to play critical roles in the sustenance and development of radio as it is from that demographic group that disc jockeys, artists, news-makers, news anchors, technicians, and other key resource persons, are drawn.

Having realised the importance of radio to democratic governance and to societal development, virtually all nations have enshrined broadcasting rights into their national Constitutions and statutes, and international bodies have also codified provisions that protect radio-related rights into regional and international legal instruments, that include but are not limited to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), and the Windhoek Declaration.

In Zimbabwe, Freedom of Expression –which includes broadcasting rights, and Access to Information guarantees, are aptly captured under Sections 61 and 62 of the Constitution, respectively. The Broadcasting Services Act also specifically provides for a three-tier broadcasting system comprising public, commercial, and community broadcasting. However, while most nations have translated broadcasting-related legal rights into tangible radioTV enterprises, Zimbabwe has lagged behind badly on that front. Since independence in 1980, media rights in this country have largely turned out to be nothing much more than mere paper rights as the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) continues to monopolise radio and television. Thirty-four years into independence, the country has only one national television station, and a second channel (Channel 2) serves Harare only.

As for radio, ZBC continues to be the only ‘public broadcasting’ radio station, with four channels. None of the four fulfils the true definition of public broadcasting. In 2011 Star FM (a subsidiary of the state-controlled Zimpapers Group) and ZiFM (largely owned by Minister of Information Communication and Technology, Supa Mandiwanzira) were awarded commercial radio broadcasting licences, but that falls far short of the expansion that is needed to make Zimbabwe’s broadcasting sector truly diverse. Despite the existence of numerous community radio initiatives that are spread out across Zimbabwe’s provinces, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) has not issued a community broadcasting licence to any of them.

It is therefore abundantly clear that broadcasting in Zimbabwe remains substantially closed and monopolised by the State. The glaring and shameful underdeveloped state of Zimbabwe’s broadcasting industry in general, and the radio sector in particular, is totally inexcusable. Even the existence of foreign-based Zimbabwean radio stations (often referred to by the political elite as “pirate radio stations”) does not dilute the seriousness of the broadcasting underdevelopment. With a legal framework that is, at least theoretically, geared for the establishment of a diverse broadcasting field, and a frequency spectrum that permits for the multiple-licencing of TV and radio broadcasters, the most probable explanation for the lamentable underdevelopment of Zimbabwe’s radio sector turns out to be — lack of political will.

As the country’s politicians and broadcast regulators dawdle on the expansion of radio, many other parts of Africa and the world beyond have, since the 1990s, recorded exponential growth in the broadcasting sector, under the ‘liberalisation of the airwaves’ project. That liberalisation entails the relaxation of broadcasting laws and of governmental policies legislative and policy interventions that have resulted in the emergence of private broadcasters across all three categories of the three-tier broadcasting system. The digitalisation of the broadcasting system that has characterised all broadcasting systems globally, has multiplied in massive proportions, the capacity of any nation, Zimbabwe included, to have as many radio and TV stations as desired by citizens, or as can be absorbed by the market.

Unfortunately, the underdeveloped status of Zimbabwe’s radio or broadcasting sector, presently inhibits the nation’s democratic progression as the platforms for citizens to express themselves are grossly limited. The monopolistic configuration in the sector also contributes significantly to the stagnation of the economy because the potentially lucrative broadcasting industry has been suppressed for far too long. Unemployment figures worsen year after year because journalism graduates, as well as graduates from allied faculties and departments like electronics and computer sciences, languages, and others, have nowhere to go after graduation since ZBC, Star FM and ZiFM can only absorb so much of the experienced or the newly qualified broadcast media professionals. The youths are the worst affected by that scourge of unemployment.

On this World Radio Day, may Government, BAZ, and Parliament please recognise the catastrophic harm that is caused by our defective media laws, and restrictive broadcasting policies. The way forward here, is for legislators, policy-makers and media regulators to liberalise the airwaves through the adoption of liberal and generous licencing practices, thereby allowing a multitude of new radio stations – including community radio stations, to flourish. There really is no good reason for the persistence of ZBC’s broadcasting monopoly.

* Chris Mhike is a lawyer practising in Harare. He writes in his personal capacity.

Source : Financial Gazette