Though the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe has been taking steps toward opening up the radio market to non-state players, its legitimacy and impartiality have been challenged by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and media advocates.
The regulator this week wrapped up public hearings on the issuance of two commercial radio licenses which it has promised to issue, but critics of its shortlist of four candidates said some were too close to the long-ruling ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe or state media including the monopoly Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
During a parliamentary question period this week Mr. Tsvangirai denounced the regulator for shortlisting a commercial radio proposal by Zimbabwe Newspapers, a state-controlled publisher of titles including the pro-Mugabe Herald newspaper of Harare. Zimpapers seeks one of the two commercial licenses for its proposed Talk Radio.
Other candidates include Hotmedia's Kiss FM, from a group of former ZBC broadcasters, a director of which said the station would initially outsource its news bulletins from the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, raising eyebrows among media advocates; ZIFM, whose controlling shareholder is former ZBC broadcaster Supa Mandiwanzira, until recently head of the ZANU-PF-aligned Affirmative Action Group business lobby; and independent Voice of the People, currently broadcasting from outside Zimbabwe.
Mr. Tsvangirai said the three principals of the national unity government in power since early 2009, including President Mugabe and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, have agreed to reconstitute the Broadcasting Authority board and directed Information Minister Webster Shamu, who appointed the board in 2010, to undertake this.
Independent media groups have long criticized the BAZ board, whose chairman is former Media and Information Commission chief Tafataona Mahoso, known for forcing the independent Daily News to close in 2003. The Daily News relaunched this year.
Zimbabwe Newspapers Chairman Paul Chimedza accused Mr. Tsvangirai of interfering and trying to undermine his group’s license application. He said Zimpapers qualifies for a license under the Broadcasting Services Amendment Act.
Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe Director Andrew Moyse said Mr. Tsvangirai’s comments on the composition of the BAZ board were long overdue, but added that the prime minister should not have allowed the present BAZ to become operational.
“I think it’s extremely slack of the MDC arm of government to have allowed it to be operational," Moyse said. "They should have been fighting to have it reconstituted as they had agreed. Strikes me that maybe the MDC don’t see the freedom of the media is actually a necessity. They could have seen what was coming.”
Thabani Moyo, advocacy officer with the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, said the fear among those pushing for media liberalization is that those issued radio licenses by the BAZ will perpetuate perceived state broadcasting bias.
VOP was the only applicant that offered any semblance of news independence, he said, noting that Zimpapers would rebroadcast news from ZBC over the same Transmedia FM network used by the state monopoly, while Kiss FM and ZIFM would merely "import the propaganda news bulletin from ZBC and add some music here and there."
"That is not the freeing up of airwaves we are looking for," Moyo said.