By Takura Zhangazha.*
The launch of a new free to air satellite televison station 1st TV at least 12 days preceding Zimbabwe’s harmonized election on 31 July 2013 sent a lot of tongues wagging. This particularly so after the scrambling of SABC channels broadcasting into the country via Wiztech. The owners of this new (satellite) television station cannot be faulted at seizing an opportunity, be it for business or as insinuated by the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity, for political reasons.
Essentially the owners of 1st Tv saw an opportunity that they were and are within their right to take. Both in relation to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) regulations as well as within the context of the law of whatever host country their relay transmitters are to be found.
The statement issued by the proprietors of 1st Tv also states that their station has not been launched not only in order to broadcast during elections but more as a long term alternative to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). Even though they are not physically broadcasting from Zimbabwean soil, this is an issue that the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity together with the national transmission company, Transmedia have raised opprobrium about.
Whether the latter company can actually stop the 1st Tv signal from entering Zimbabwean airspace has thus far been proven to be an exercise in futility given the fact that it can be viewed on channels to be found via DSTV decoders.
The broadcasting of 1st Tv into Zimbabwe is however not the main issue to be considered in this article. What is more important are the reasons as to why this new channel, owned as it claims, by Zimbabweans (based both here and in the Diaspora), had to take the route of broadcasting via Wiztech. The immediate answer to that question is that regardless of whatever successes one accords the outgoing inclusive government, the broadcast media, particularly television, have not been democratized. Both with reference to transmission as well as in relation to broadcasting diversification of stations or even their content.
This lack of progress in the broadcasting industry is something that many would correctly want to put on the doorstep of Zanu Pf as a sole governing party before the formation of the inclusive government, but where one is more honest, it is an indictment on all the parties in the same four years after its formation in 2009.
Throughout its tenure and against better advice the inclusive government remained muted on the important issue of broadcasting diversification and reform. The fact that it licensed two private national free to air radio stations is not only inadequate but evidence of how wrong an ‘incremental’ approach to media reform was and will always be in Zimbabwe’s context.
The ‘privilege’ premise accorded the media in Zimbabwe by all political parties that signed and approved the new constitution is unfortunate and betrays a patent misunderstanding of media freedom by those that are in the outgoing government. And this is across the board. Media freedom remains a right that should be inviolable, but the new national charter while recognizing the same in section 61, takes it away not only through establishment of a constitutional media commission to licence and supervise journalists (within the ambit of potential criminal punishment) but in similar fashion to the Lancaster house constitution by providing for media freedom to be curtailed by not listing it on rights that have no limitations in Section 86.
This is also the same political culture of control and propagandizing of information that characterizes the structure and editorial policy of our state broadcaster, much to the denial of alternative views to the mainstream or ruling party and its associated organizations in the country.
It is this culture of controlling the media that has left the democratic media reform agenda not only shortchanged but to be viewed as an abstract matter by all of the major political parties both in this election and those that may emerge thereafter.
This has been the reason why in effect broadcast media environment remains undemocratic and lauded only on the basis of incrementalism as opposed to substantive democratic progress.
Even where the MDCs have decried the conduct of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), they have only done so on the basis of personalities and not on key principles such as those that are to be found in the African Charter on Broadcasting. To argue against the chairperson-ship of Dr Mahoso at BAZ is fair politics but is unfortunately a far cry from addressing the fundamental challenges of the archaic broadcasting and technological frameworks that bedevil the media in Zimbabwe.
It is futile to discuss personalities and not policies over and about the media at a time when media technology is changing rapidly both in terms of its convergence and its global reach. International diplomacy may stall the ability of externally based television and radio stations from broadcasting into a country, but this is always a temporary measure if the country in question has neither the technology nor the democratisation of its own media environment.
In effect therefore, the launch of 1st TV, more out of the frustration at the lack of opportunities to broadcast from Zimbabwe by its proprietors, is a direct result of an undemocratic media environment in Zimbabwe. That the station was launched less than two weeks before the holding of harmonized elections may raise some eyebrows but it cannot be faulted both in terms of the ITU and neither can the government absolve itself of the sin of incompetence.
Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)