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Controversy Over Zimbabwe’s Eight New Radio Licenses

Questions, discontentment persist in the wake of recent license allocations

Nhlanhla Ngwenya is the director of Media Institute of
Southern Africa’s Zimbabwe chapter.

HARARE, Zimbabwe — In February, authorities in Zimbabwe granted eight local commercial radio licenses amid grumbling of bias from media advocacy groups and unlucky private sector applicants.

The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe called for bids in 2011 for 25 metropolitan areas but only 21 applicants responded. Of the 18 shortlisted, five failed to pay the required statutory public inquiry fees and one withdrew from the process. A total of 12 applicants were interviewed during public inquiries.

The low number of license respondees was attributed to exorbitant nonrefundable application fees that were pegged at US$2,500 for submission and US$7,500 for public inquiry. Low revenue potential through advertising and sponsorship in a depressed economy, particularly around smaller towns, was also cited.

Many observers are questioning the fairness of the process as it appears that the main winners are tied to public powers. Among winners was Kingstons Limited, part of state-controlled newspaper publishers Zimpapers.

ZACRAS Chairperson Gift Mambipiri is pictured with Tatenda
Chikukwa of Patsaka-Nyaminyami Community radio and
Vivienne Marara (front) the National Coordinator of ZACRAS,
World Press Freedom Day in Kadoma, Zimbabwe in May.

It received two licenses, one for Harare and the other for the resort town of Kariba. Zimpapers, which already owns national commercial station Star FM, also received a license for Diamond FM in the eastern border city of Mutare.

AB Communications — linked to Deputy Minister of Information and ruling ZANU (PF) party member and National Assembly member Supa Mandiwanzira, who runs station ZiFM — was awarded a licence for Faya FM in Gweru and one for Gogogoi FM in Masvingo in the center of the country.

Fairtalk Communications, which many observers believe is backed by Minister of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services Jonathan Moyo, also grabbed permission to operate Skyz Metro FM in Bulawayo and Breeze FM in the resort town of Victoria Falls. Another applicant, the low-profile Ray of Hope, represented by former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Co. CEO Munyaradzi Hwengwere, received a licence to operate YA FM in Zvishavane.

Among losers was newspaper magnate Alpha Media Holdings, which was turned down in its request for a Harare license. The flagship daily, Newsday, in an editorial responded with a scathing attack on the broadcasting regulator.

“The decision by BAZ to give licences to eight radio stations linked to the ruling ZANU (PF) party exposed talk of media reforms in Zimbabwe as a mere ruse. Zimbabwe’s media industry remains largely undeveloped because of the unhealthy monopoly by the state in the broadcasting sector,” the newspaper editorialized. “The country has fallen far behind other regional countries that have a plural broadcasting industry.”

Media advocacy groups also condemned the entire process as being partisan. The new licenses, according to Nhlanhla Ngwenya, the director of Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Zimbabwe chapter, were in essence an addition of platforms that are directly or indirectly linked to the governing party, which compromises the diversity of views a liberalized broadcasting sector is meant to bring.

“This was to be expected given the flawed regulatory framework which is susceptible to political manipulation” said Ngwenya.

The Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations whose membership has unsuccessfully lobbied government to license them welcomed the licensing of new players with some caution.

“The march toward diversity appears compromised when the same players linked to the state are licensed,” said Gift Mambipiri, ZACRAS chairperson. “The government has always dominated the airwaves via ZBC. Their licensing of Zimpapers and Kingstons is a sure sign that they plan to sell the nation a dummy.”

John Masuku reports on the industry for Radio World from Harare, Zimbabwe.