The permanent secretary in the Zimbabwe government’s Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services ministry Ndavaningi “Nick” Mangwana last week made a startling claim on his micro-blogging Twitter account that all the aspiring television stations that had been short-listed by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), but denied licences were either linked to the government or the ruling party — Zanu PF.
BY NIGEL NYAMUTUMBU
Mangwana made this claim in a bid to discredit the assertions made in media statements, specifically targeted at the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa Zimbabwe) and more broadly other media professional and support organisations under the auspices of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) that had raised concern around how the outcome of the licensing process had not translated to genuine liberalisation of the broadcasting sector on account of lack of diversity.
In this attempt to debunk notions of any favouritism and partisan awarding of these television licences, a process that has taken the country four decades to break the monopoly of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), the permanent secretary if anything, opened a can of worms by divulging the root cause of the lack of broadcasting diversity by way of process or outcome.
It is certainly not ideal for a country as diverse as ours, be it within the political, social, cultural and ideological realm, to be this homogeneous to an extent that the entire media sector, particularly in television broadcasting, is linked directly with the state and by extension the ruling party.
To make this point more categorical, it is prudent to consider that it is every Zimbabwean citizen’s right to establish broadcasting services subject only to restrictions necessary for the democratic regulation of the media.
By conferring the right to establishment on all citizens, it thus translates to mean that the airwaves belong with the people and not with the state and certainly not with the ruling party.
The onus as such is on the regulatory authority to be independent to the extent that it can challenge state hegemony over the media.
We already have a challenge that the current legal framework, the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), doesn’t provide for this independence as it confers significant powers on the minister and the executive in carrying out its mandate.
Notwithstanding the reality that the BAZ is entrenched within the executive, who in this case are referees and players — on one hand they want to be players through actors such as Rusununguko whose link with the government is public and on another referee who awards the licences — the regulatory authority should have handled the application of television licences better.
For starters, there is no public record of those that applied, but could not be short-listed.
There was no disclosure as to why these media entities could not meet the test and identification of the areas they ought to attend to should another opportunity arise.
The airwaves are a public good and any person that presents their application does not do so for themselves, but for the audiences they seek to serve, who are the citizens of this country.
Secondly, BAZ having considered all the applications should have considered the nature of those that would have passed the first hurdle not necessarily to deny them of this right, but to ensure fairness in so far as their composition is concerned.
Outside the politics of the day, which is obviously polarised, BAZ could have considered other factors to ensure every Zimbabwean interest is adequately catered for.
I am sure the uproar that followed the announcement of the eventual licensees would have been similar had BAZ just licensed one out of 16 languages or if the regulatory authority had restricted the distribution to just one of the country’s 10 provinces.
By making one company that is within the apparatus of one arm of the state compete against itself gives impetus to views that the broadcasting authority is compromised.
Thirdly and finally for this submission, BAZ should have made the scoring public in the spirit of public transparency and accountability.
By merely releasing the results without justification and any follow-up intervention to demonstrate their integrity and to provide reasons of their distribution of this finite resource that belongs with the people, BAZ missed an opportunity to address past suspicions, perceptions and to also deal with the polarisation that characterises our society.
It did not help matters that BAZ did not even bother to pronounce themselves on this matter despite the engagement on the same and left government, through the permanent secretary or proxies of the ruling party and those that won licences, to respond and not actually pronounce itself on the matter.
BAZ should be independent or at least seen as such.
Having the government or those that hold a brief for the government defend its decision is unhelpful, especially when we consider that we had to wait for four decades for the liberalisation of the broadcasting services.
For an authority that has a board and a secretariat and manages its affairs as we witnessed to simply provide results and leave the justification to those that it awarded licences raises unnecessary questions and suggests that BAZ cannot stand with its decision.
What makes the responses even more telling is the brazen admission that our media sector is in reality or purportedly related to the state.
This is certainly untenable and the sooner we deal with state entrenchment within our media, the more we are going to move towards genuine liberalisation of the airwaves and broadly the media.
Plurality does not translate to diversity and the policy imperative to open up the airwaves must not be a tick in the box exercise or tokenism, but a genuine process anchored on transparency, fairness and accountability. The BSA also needs to be urgently reformed to make this a reality.
The BAZ has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is a learning authority when it issues community radio licences. We have come this far, four decades to be precise, and we should change the narrative of how we conduct our competitive processes as they pertain to our rights.
We deserve better!
l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner currently serving as the Programmes Manager of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on email@example.com or +263 772 501 557. This article was first published by The Accent, a MAZ initiative.