By Taurai Kufa Mabhachi
THE recent call by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) for national television and community radio broadcasting licence applications should be good news to information-starved Zimbabweans.
Indeed, some civic groups have welcomed the news as a step in the right direction of freeing Zimbabwe’s heavily restricted broadcasting environment.
But it’s not. Because the process of awarding the licences will be selective, narrow and biased.
This is because the method of granting licences and the institutions awarding them conflict with Zimbabwe’s Constitution, which declares that the airwaves are a national public resource.
The Constitution further states that control of the airwaves is strictly limited to regulating the airwaves within the technical capacity of the broadcasting spectrum.
This means that the broadcasting regulator (BAZ) does NOT have the right to limit broadcasting except to manage its use within the technical capacity of the broadcasting bandwidth.
This is what the Constitution has to say: Section 61 (3) “Broadcasting and other electronic media of communication have freedom of establishment, subject only to State licensing procedures that –
Are necessary to regulate the airwaves and other forms of signal distribution; and
Are independent of control by government or by political or commercial interests”
But the practice as it stands now, means that BAZ chooses WHEN applicants can apply and WHO is awarded licences.
What is not generally well known is that the current analogue broadcasting spectrum capacity is severely under-used. It has vast spare capacity to carry more TV and radio broadcasters at all levels of broadcasting.
Zimbabwe has signed up to the internationally accepted three-tier system of broadcasting for both television and radio, which comprises public broadcasting, independent private commercial broadcasting, and community broadcasting.
Zimbabwe currently uses the VHF analogue waveband frequency for television broadcasting and most commonly for current analogue radio broadcasting the FM frequency waveband spectrum. By their nature, these have significantly limited capacity to carry TV and radio signals, which is why the Constitution talks about “licensing procedures…necessary to regulate the airwaves”. But they can carry many more broadcasters at national and local levels than are currently being allowed by the authorities.
If Zimbabwe’s analogue broadcasting capacity is fully and equitably exploited, as envisaged in the Constitution, it will establish the basic structure (under a three-tier broadcasting system) for aspiring Zimbabwean broadcasting service providers and citizens to exercise their constitutional rights to broadcast and access information freely over the airwaves. This will also greatly enhance citizens rights to free expression by providing a variety of platforms for the airing of a full diversity of views and opinions, as well as critical information needed to safeguard citizens’ wellbeing.
Despite the promise of a “new dispensation” since Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rise to the country’s presidency, his government has been slow to implement reforms that would align media laws and policy with Zimbabwe’s Constitution. In fact, although the Draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) is due to be repealed, the laws government is proposing to replace it with have all been condemned as giving alternative expression to AIPPA.
And although government now seems to be moving ahead with broadening access to the broadcasting sector, its historical record of awarding commercial radio station licences to ruling party-linked individuals and entities would suggest that the current call for broadcasting license applications will also be a selective charade.
In fact government has already issued Zanu-PF’s media mouthpiece, Zimpapers, with a content and distribution services television licence, which relates to digital TV broadcasting over the internet. But it is certain to be granted one or more of the six commercial television broadcasting service licences currently being offered by BAZ.
The same goes for the 10 community radio broadcasting licences being offered. While civil society organisations say they have more than 20 community radio broadcasting initiatives owned and operated (but not broadcasting) by local communities around the country, the ministry of information’s permanent secretary, Nick Mangwana, suggested at a media stakeholders’ consultative meeting at the end of 2018, that government was planning to set up 10 of its own community radio stations with government funding already secured. The big question now is, whose community radio stations will be awarded licences?
And who says Zimbabwe only needs 10 community radio stations? There is FM frequency spectrum bandwidth space for literally dozens of community radio broadcasting stations around the country with their limited 30km range of reception. And there is certainly a need for them too, especially in isolated rural communities.
Clearly, there is a need to establish a national plan for these broadcasters, drawn up in consultation with the communities themselves, civil society organisations and with the help of a truly independent broadcasting regulatory body. Although the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill – one of the three pieces of legislation that is due to replace AIPPA – BAZ, which falls under its jurisdiction, will certainly not be “independent of control by government…” as stipulated in the country’s Constitution. In fact, a draft of this Bill retains the authority of the minister of information over various aspects of the broadcasting regulatory authority.
The same situation should apply for local and national private commercial radio (and television) broadcasters insofar as a national frequency spectrum capacity plan should be drawn up by a genuinely independent entity to explain just how many national and local radio and television channels can still be accommodated in Zimbabwe’s existing frequency spectrum.
Although the broadcasting channel allocation regulator, the Postal & Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) has drawn up what it calls a national Broadcasting Spectrum Allotment Plan for government, it is generally unknown to the public, and no independent technical assessment of this plan has ever been conducted. It is, therefore, necessary to conduct an independent assessment of Zimbabwe’s full broadcasting spectrum channel allocation potential and to widely publicise such potential to increase citizens’ awareness of the media and information rights they are forfeiting. It will also inform aspiring broadcasting service providers of the potential channels still technically available for exploitation.
In past years government has claimed that it has delayed issuing broadcasting licences for radio and television because it is in the process of migrating all broadcasting from the traditional analogue broadcasting platform to the digital format. Periodically, we have received piecemeal ”updates” on this mammoth project’s progress, but rarely an overall view of what it all entails. It is, in fact, running several years behind schedule, due in part, to a lack of funds needed to complete it.
Government and broadcasting authorities have been deliberately vague about the details of how the migration to digital broadcasting is going to affect consumers, but the impression has been given that it will – once complete – affect all broadcasting platforms.
In truth, however, the main focus is on digital terrestrial television (DTTV) broadcasting and will not initially affect traditional analogue radio broadcasting, although much of the infrastructure for digital audio (radio) broadcasting (DAB) will have been included in the digital migration.
While traditional television sets (receivers) will require consumers to acquire set-top boxes (or to buy complete integrated digital TVs) to receive the digital television signal, digital radio broadcasting will require listeners to completely replace their radios, which would result in a total dislocation of communication between the nation and its broadcasters, including government-controlled state broadcasting. Analogue radio broadcasting will, therefore, remain the main system of radio communication for years to come.
It is therefore important to understand Zimbabwe’s analogue radio frequency broadcasting capacity and to challenge all the laws that restrict the full, fair and equitable allocation and exploitation of this national public resource.
Digital broadcasting – both television and radio – will simply massively expand Zimbabweans’ opportunities to exercise their constitutional rights to establish radio and television broadcasting stations and therefore expand citizens’ ability to access an even wider variety of sources of information and entertainment. But this will not happen without extensive reforms of the laws governing broadcasting activities – including the proposed legislation masquerading as media reforms.
The current system of restricted and selective licensing and channel allocation to broadcasters with links to the ruling party must be brought to an end and replaced with a fair and equitable allocation of the remaining frequency spectrum to all aspiring broadcasters by a genuinely independent broadcasting regulatory authority.
If broadcasting channels can be fully and equitably utilised by a wide variety of broadcasting service providers under both the analogue system of broadcasting and in the coming digital migration, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution (Sections 61 & 62), Zimbabwe will experience a rapid expansion and growing diversity of voices to be heard in the broadcasting sector, leading to real and significant improvement in citizens’ access to information and freedom of expression. Such a scenario will also serve as a powerful engine for economic development all over the country. But will it remain just another broken dream?
Taurai Kufa Mabhachi is a media technology activist.He writes in his own capacity