Broadcasting licensing process stifles diversity
By John Masuku
The process of applying and obtaining a broadcasting licence in Zimbabwe especially as a private player unattached to the ruling establishment is at best described as an impossibility.
This is so since most current licence holders can easily be linked to either the ruling party or government. The supposedly enabling Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) is full of hurdles right from the very wide apart calls for prospective applicants to the shrouded adjudication process and announcement of results by the regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ).
Section 61 of the Constitution deals with freedom of expression and media freedom. In Subsection 3, the constitution states that,
Broadcasting and other electronic media of communication have freedom of establishment, subject only to State licensing procedures that—
(a) are necessary to regulate the airwaves and other forms of signal distribution; and
(b) are independent of control by government or by political or commercial interests.
However, the reality is that the continued existence of the BSA makes establishing a broadcasting station in Zimbabwe a privilege that is enjoyed at the benevolence of the regulator. This is in complete violation of the constitution.
The first call for radio and television applications by BAZ was made almost four years after the promulgation of BSA, successor to a statutory instrument brought about in 2001 by Capital Radio in its challenge of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) monopoly in existence since the colonial era which had ended with independence in April 1980.
It is widely believed that this particular call was a smokescreen meant to manage election guidelines enacted by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which stipulated that member countries should have plural print and electronic media environments. At that time, Zimbabwe, which faced polls in March 2005 after controversial presidential elections in 2002, was still lagging far behind.
In December 2004, Radio Voice of the People Communications Trust also commonly known as Radio VOP, submitted a radio broadcasting licence application for a local commercial talk radio station to BAZ, probably as the first bidder if the receiving registry clerk’s surprise remarks then were anything to go by.
The submission made for VOP FM under Voxmedia Productions Private Limited, a Companies Act registered subsidiary as required by law, was meant to meet that month-end’s deadline. The deadline was later extended into the new year when a total of four applications, three for radio and one for television were received.
However, the TV applicant, Munhumutape African Broadcasting Corporation (MABC), then led by television entrepreneur Oscar Kubara was the only bidder called to a public inquiry held at the Harare International Conference Centre (HICC) on June 10, 2005.
BAZ’s response to Radio VOP’s application was that its proposed funding model, though reliant on the local financial sector, did not satisfy it. It was also learnt that MABC’s bid was unsuccessful for the same reasons. The Broadcasting Act was very strict on foreign funding and partnerships in the sector.
Radio VOP, which survived a devastating, still unresolved bomb blast in 2002 and sporadic arrests of staff in later years, had since inception in 2000 made its programmes, mainly news, socio-political views and analyses, available on shortwave through Internet platforms.
The initiative, together with other like-minded entities such as Radio Dialogue(Bulawayo), Short Wave Radio Africa(London) and VOA Studio 7 (Washington DC), was often, for unfounded reasons, castigated by state actors as a pirate station and agent of regime change bent on fanning hatred and disunity in the country. Radio VOP, however, remained resolute that as a Zimbabwean organisation it had a right to apply for the advertised broadcasting licence under the country’s laws without fear or favour.
Long wait for – nothing?
From 2005 it was to be another long wait for any hope about the much anticipated liberation of the airwaves. The Global Political Agreement (GPA) signed between the ruling Zanu PF and opposition MDC parties in 2008, resulting in a unity government the following year, included a clause stating that all radio stations and employees operating outside the country should return home and apply for licences.
This brought excitement and sounded like automatic granting of licences and Radio VOP was decisive about applying without delay but, alas, had to wait for two more years before BAZ could make another public call. Although the GPA media clause became a bargaining point among activists and other prospective applicants, that did not, even by an inch, move BAZ, still under a ministry allocated to Zanu PF.
The next hearings for national commercial radio stations, were held in October 2011 with four out of 15 applicants namely KISS FM which included music superstar Oliver Mutukudzi, banker Douglas Munatsi and veteran broadcasters like Musi Khumalo and George Munetsi, Zimpapers’Talk Radio (now Star FM), whose board was headed by the late top civil servant Dr Charles Utete and included incarcerated economist Munyaradzi Kereke among others.
Others were ZiFM Stereo led by current ICT minister and Nyanga South MP, Supa Mandiwanzira and Radio VOP, whose board of trustees then consisted of journalist and businessman David Taurayi Masunda, human rights lawyer Arnold Tsunga, media executives Nhlanhla Ngwenya and Sharon Samushonga.
When the outcomes of the public hearings were announced, revealing Zimpapers and ZiFM Stereo as awardees, KISS FM and Radio VOP cried foul. They believed they had bided extremely well, with the latter, represented by another human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa filing a challenge at the Administrative Court about lack of transparency in the BAZ adjudication process.
This challenge was later abandoned after its appeal following initial dismissal took too long to be set for further hearing and was also overtaken by other institutional developments. Radio VOP had demanded access and review of scoring criteria, minutes and video recordings since this was a public process.
In its third application for a local commercial licence in 2011, Radio VOP, still trading as Voxmedia Productions, having paid a $2 500 application fee was frustrated that it took too long for BAZ to invite it for public inquiry due to a low turnout of takers especially in small towns.
When the public hearing was called for after re-advertisement, the station took a decision not to part with another $7 500 in public appearance fees in a process it had not built much confidence in, even during the unity government.
At that time, Radio VOP distantly observed with interest two bids by private newspaper organisation AMH, fronted by Carryslot Private Limited, in Harare (Capital FM) and Bulawayo (SkyzFM). When both attempts failed, the outcome confirmed earlier fears of bias against truly private players with no ruling party or government links.
Time to step up
Despite Community Radio Harare (CORAH) ‘s 2012 unsuccessful High Court challenge to compel BAZ not to delay the licensing of community radios, the regulator has taken comfortable refuge in the current broadcasting law and done nothing, serve for never ending promises.
The licensing of many commercial radio stations in Zimbabwe in recent years has admittedly grown the broadcasting sector although it has not translated into the much expected diversity of ownership and balanced editorial approach, with possibilities of the creation of monopolies by state-related entities becoming a reality.
The law does not compel the regulator to have and publish periodic application calls for all tiers of broadcasting. That is left at the discretion of the regulator and susceptible to administrative and political abuse. There is no stipulation under the law as to the time frame within which BAZ should examine or process applications for licenses.
The current licensing procedure must be tested against the principles of fair administrative justice that are protected in section 68 of the Constitution. It is highly unlikely that leaving BAZ with the sole discretion of when calls for licence applications are made amounts to administrative conduct that is prompt, efficient or reasonable. Administrative justice must also be procedurally fair; it is, therefore, necessary to promote transparency in the selection process used by BAZ in choosing which entity to licence. There is no public confidence in the current licensing procedure because it is still largely viewed as partisan and skewed towards government/ruling party interests.
Thus the loud calls for broadcasting sector reforms are welcomed and should also address exorbitant application licence fees and levies, partisan BAZ commissioners and excessive executive powers.
The writer, John Masuku is the Executive Director of Radio VOP and Chief Executive Officer of Voxmedia Productions Private Limited. This article was commissioned by MISA Zimbabwe, as is part of its campaign on the realignment of media laws with the constitution of Zimbabwe.