Wednesday, 20 February 2013

An Ordinary Civilian's Perspective on the Ban on 'Illegal Communication Devices' in Zimbabwe

By Takura Zhangazha*

The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), in a recent press statement issued via its Chief Spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner (AC) Charity Charamba, gave some insight as to how it views freedom of expression and access to information.  It was a statement, as reported both in the state controlled and private media, announcing the banning of  ‘illegal communication devices’.  It turns out these ‘illegal communication devices’ are most probably those that come in the form of small portable radios that have Shortwave (SW) and Frequency Modulation(FM) bandwidths. In its announcement of this blanket ban, the ZRP also indicated in the same press statement that the force was worried about citizens who were meeting in ‘groups of 40-50’ in the evenings and therefore allegedly in violation of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). 

That the ZRP has deemed these devices or their distribution illegal may be a matter that must be determined by our courts of law or where and when it relates to elections and the referendum, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. It would however also be important that the AC's statement also be subject to public scrutiny and debate.  And hence the purpose of this article is to seek to examine the social import of the immediate ban in relation to the rights of the people of Zimbabwe to freedom of expression and freedom of association. This also because the ZRP did not issue a blanket ban on debating the merits or de-merits of  its public announcement.

In reading the reports over and about this statement from the ZRP, one can easily surmise two things. The first that the ‘illegal communication devices’ referred to are in fact portable radios with access to the Short Wave frequency and that have been in use and in distribution in Zimbabwe since the days of the liberation struggle. These devices generally have not been part of the mainstream latter day radio technologies in Zimbabwe due to  the global expansion of cheaper and clearer broadcasting via Frequency Modulation (FM) under the aegis of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) of which Zimbabwe is a member state and signatory. This expansion has generally led to radio manufacturers not making as many SW frequency receiver radios.

 Radios with SW frequencies are largely manufactured for and used in countries where either there is a lack of media diversity and pluralism or alternatively where there is underdevelopment of the necessary infrastructure to broadcast via FM. Indeed in the past they have been used for propaganda purposes (within the context of the Cold War) but for our purposes since the liberation struggle, they have been used as platforms to access alternative  information or entertainment from what would be regarded as mainstream or popularly viewed as unbalanced. 

It would be however important to note that in terms of the ITU SW radio station frequencies are essentially permitted to broadcast across borders and are therefore not officially recognized as a violation of the ‘sovereignty’ of a country.  And in any event Zimbabwe has its own current SW Radio station that no country has sought to close or limit its citizens from owning these radio sets.  

So, on the face of it, while the ZRP may have perused through the Postal and Telecommunications Act in tandem with the Broadcasting Services Act and POSA, it would also be important  for the public relations department  to note that there is no particular international restriction on SW radio broadcasts via the ITU. Where it feels this affects its ability to implement a law, then the police services should also  talk to the relevant cabinet minister to seek bi-lateral agreements with our neighboring countries and ask the latter not to host transmitters for SW radio frequencies.

The second issue to note about the announcement by the police is the coincidence of the seeming simultaneous  ban on both the ‘illegal communication devices’ and ‘evening gatherings of 40-50 people’.  What is apparent is that it is most likely the police are aware that most SW radio stations, including those that specialize on Zimbabwean issues, broadcast most clearly in the evenings and a good number of people tune into their programmes. Except that due to the general shortage of SW radio-sets I cited earlier on in this article, Zimbabwean citizens will gather in small groups to listen to a singular set. 

This was the case during the liberation struggle and even though we are no longer at war, this appears to be the case in contemporary times.  It would be somewhat unfair to label such a development a ‘conspiracy’ as appears to be the case from AC Charamba’s statement. Instead this development is more indicative of a willingness by ordinary Zimbabweans to listen to alternative and internationally legal  SW radio stations of their own volition and not in aide of any conspiracy around elections or any other matter. If it were within the purview of the ZRPs mandate, it would have been preferable that they explain what is particularly wrong that is communicated by these SW radio stations that is not broadcast via the nationally licensed FM radio stations.  

In the same vein, it is also important that the ZRP make clear how their blanket ban relates to the use of mobile telephony to access either SW or FM radio and whether mobile telephones fall within the ambit of their term, ‘illegal communication devices’. This too would be the same for the world wide web and its contents as well as its reach or its ability to be shared between individuals or ‘gatherings.

From a civilian perspective, I am aware it is important that the public understands that the ZRP does not make the law, it implements it. Indeed the onus resides in civilians (inclusive of security services when they are off duty) to lobby government to effect changes to the law via their political leaders. It however remains the prerogative of civilians to also assess the performance of the ZRP in tandem not only with the law but with the values, spirit and letter of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. In the case of SW radio devices, it is not so much their technical ability to be listened to by Zimbabweans that should be the issue. Instead it should be the ability of citizens to enjoy the right to receive and impart information without undue hindrance that is paramount and in an age where the more free and technologically sound a country's domestic media is, the less it has reason to fear information coming from elsewhere. 

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (