The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Authority called Thursday for applications for commercial radio licenses in a move that could, if it represents a genuine bid to liberalize electronic media, end the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation's monopoly in the sector.
But some advocates of media reform expressed skepticism saying the promise to issue two commercial radio licenses could merely be intended to placate the Southern African Development Community which has been stepping up pressure for democratic reforms.
An extraordinary SADC summit focused on Zimbabwe and its electoral timetable is to be held in South Africa next month at which time President Robert Mugabe and his former ruling ZANU-PF party could find themselves under closer regional scrutiny.
Zimbabwe has no independent radio and television stations inside its borders, though a handful of broadcasters including the Studio 7 at the Voice of America, London-based Short Wave Radio Africa and South African based Voice of the People beam programming to Zimbabweans from outside the country.
For the time being,the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation exercises an electronic monopoly with four radio and two television stations. Independent monitors have accused ZBC of systematic partisanship in favor of President Mugabe.
With several independent daily newspapers licensed since 201 and pressure increasing for similar steps on the electronic side of the media, the Broadcasting Authority finally published an ad in the state-run Herald paper soliciting radio license applications.
A deadline of June 30 was set for receipt of the applications for two licenses to operate commercial radio stations with national reach. The advertisement indicated an annual license fee of US$15,000 plus 1 percent of gross operating revenues.
Zenzele Ndebele, a spokesman for Bulawayo-based Radio Dialogue, a community radio set up a decade ago but yet to broadcast, said the license fees are prohibitive.
Manager Jerry Jackson of London-based Short Wave Radio Africa expressed doubt as to the good faith of the ZANU-PF-controlled Broadcasting Authority in inviting applications, saying the timing shortly before the SADC summit on Zimbabwe was suspect.
The composition of the Broadcasting Authority also drew criticism.
Spokesman Douglas Mwonzora of the MDC formation of Prime Minister Tsvangirai said his party does not recognize the Broadcasting Authority, maintaining that the board was unilaterally and unlawfully constituted by Information Minister Webster Shamu.
Deputy Information Minister Murisi Zwizwai of the Tsvangirai MDC told Studio 7 Livetalk on Thursday that the advertisement was illegal as the panel is not legally constituted.
Zwizwai said President Mugabe, Prime Minister Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara agreed Monday to reconstitute the Broadcasting Authority, the Mass Media Trust Board and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation board.
Chairman Loughty Dube of the Media Institute of Southern Africa's Zimbabwe chapter said the June 30 deadline shows the broadcasting board is not sincere.
“They want to make sure things remain as they are for a long time knowing for certain that no one was prepared for commercial radio stations. They must start with community radio stations first before licensing commercial ones,” he said.
For perspective, VOA Studio 7 reporter Sandra Nyaira turned to Executive Director John Masuku of Radio Voice of the People and Democracy and Governance Manager Joy Mabenge of the Institute for Democratic Alternatives for Zimbabwe.
Mabenge said the Broadcasting Authority is trying to divert attention from real issues that include the need for its board to be reformed to reflect national interest.
Cautiously welcoming the move, Masuku, also director of the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations, said pressure was mounting on Harare for electronic media reform, among others, resulting in the invitation for applications from BAZ.