Monday, May 01, 2017

Radio Free Zimbabwe

I first heard the three words Radio Free Zimbabwe as the title of an album by the band Okapi Guitars. Ironically they are an Australian, not African Afropop group. Their lead singer Paul Mbenna is from Tanzania, not Zimbabwe. So let us examine the relevance of Radio Free Zimbabwe, and perhaps why a Tanzanian ex-patriot living abroad in Australia might make a reference to an underground broadcaster living under an authoritarian regime.

In the Republic of Zimbabwe there is exactly one state broadcaster: ZBC. It operates two television stations and 6 radio stations: National FM, Power FM, Radio 3, Radio Zimbabwe, Spot FM, and SW 24/7 which operates only on shortwave. In 2000 a court ruling ended the monopoly of state-only broadcasting. It repealed a law that prohibited the private ownership of radio transmitters and created a framework for the state to allocate frequencies.

But the victory did not allow the plaintiff to being broadcasting. Capital FM was instructed to wait for the government to draft new laws to regulate this new media. Capital FM jumped the gun and began broadcasting six days later. They were promptly shut down by police and their equipment was seized. The Mugabe regime did act quickly and draft a law by April 2001. But it too forbid the private ownership of transmitters. Only the state owned company, TransMedia was permitted to do so. Nonetheless, the new licensing entity BAZ (Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe) began receiving applications. The ZBC rejected them all. Effectively only the state can broadcast legally in Zimbabwe. It is also illegal to act as a journalist without a permit from the (MIC) Media and Information Commission.

In 2004 the first BAZ chairman, Nhlanhla Masuku was quoted as saying:  "Who do we issue licenses,when people have not applied." This media-vacuum created a need for independent communications that is fulfilled largely by pirate broadcasters and shortwave operating outside Zimbabwe. The owners of Capital Radio moved to the UK and began broadcasting as SWAR (Shortwave Radio Africa) on 6145Khz. Except for correspondents, all of it's staff were in the London.  The U.S. Government funds a similar service on Shortwave and AM Studio 7, which has a repeater in Botswana.

There are numerous other pirate broadcasters. VOP, (Voice of People) broadcasts on 610 kHz in English, Shona and Ndebele since about mid 2000. Their offices were bombed in 2002. In 2005 they were shut down by the police and 3 reporters were arrested. VOP continues to record programs, but now from South Africa. These are broadcast on Radio Netherlands. A community group named Radio Dialogue operates (ZCR) Zimbabwe Community Radio broadcasting from the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. The book Public Broadcasting in Africa Series: Zimbabwe covers this in excellent detail .My go-to text on this topic Broadcasting in Africa by Sydney Head is out of date such that it still listed Zimbabwe under Rhodesia. But the book details a long tradition of radio going back to 1932.

But in 2008 the Mugabe regime began jamming even those few independent shortwave frequencies. And whenever anti-Mugabe sentiments sneak onto the state-owned broadcasters... there are reprisals. Gerry Jackson, the founder of SWAR was fired from Radio 3 in 1997 for insubordination. He had aired live phone calls from people being beaten by police during food riots in the city of Harare. The government of Zimbabwe has forbidden six SWAR staff from ever returning to Zimbabwe. In a speech to Parliament Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa stated "They would be welcomed back... Welcomed back to our prisons."  [LINK] In 2014 SW Radio Africa shot down due to funding issues. [LINK]  Gerry Jackson wrote
“It is with regret that SW Radio Africa announces that it is closing down. We recently stopped our shortwave transmissions but have continued to provide broadcasts via our website and other formats, but these too will cease. We’d like to thank the organisations and individuals who have supported us for the past 13 years and the contributors to our programs who have given so willingly of their time and expertise. In particular we’d like to thank our listeners, who have shared their lives, hopes and dreams and helped us to tell the story of Zimbabwe’s sad decline to the world. We hope that one day Zimbabwe finally has a government who understands that its sole responsibility is to ensure a safe, healthy, prosperous life for every man, woman and child in the country.
When the colonialist Ian Smith regime of Rhodesia was collapsing in the 1970s they cracked down on dissent. Radio broadcasting was restricted, and even individual songs were banned. The Smith government even stopped making shortwave radios to limit access. So the end of the story is that there is no Radio Free Zimbabwe, because Zimbabwe is not free. But President Robert Mugabe is 93 years old. In February 2016, Mugabe said he had no plans for retirement and would remain in power "until God says 'come'."

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