At 98 percent, Zimbabwe’s literacy rate is the second highest in Africa. Among its population of 14 million, 6 million are said to be cell phone users. Yet since gaining independence in 1980, the country’s regime has maintained a tight grip on the media. Some citizens believe the one national TV station, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation (ZBC), and few radio stations that do exist simply churn out propaganda.
By Misheck Rusere, Harare
To fill the vacuum of trustworthy information, Zimbabweans now resort to news reports originating outside the country’s borders.
“Sometimes I need time away from my daily routine, alone with my radio or television, but I can’t tune into the ZBC poison,” says Eugene Makaya, a vegetable vendor in the Harare suburb of Mbare. “It’s like I’m being taken for granted or simply as a fool, so definitely I will go for the foreign media, using my free-to-air-decoder, or simply tune in to Studio 7 or Radio VOP on shortwave, where I feel the truth is being told.”
Makaya’s experience is echoed by university dropout Petros Mabasa when it comes to television. “I’m better off watching news presented by SABC, BBC or Aljazeera than watching ZBC,” he says. “It has nothing to offer economically marginalized people like us because most – if not – all of their time, they are talking politics, ignoring…our plight as marginalized communities.”
“All they do is churn out hate speech – and I hate it,” he adds.
Even the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), which is empowered to issue broadcasting licenses, had no words to defend the ZBC’s poor-quality programming.
In an interview with the BAZ, chairperson Tafataona Mahoso said: “Who am I to say this or that? Go out to the people there and ask them, carry out surveys and use whatever information you get from them.”
Local media expert Ernest Mudzengi believes that ZBC has long abused its monopoly, resulting in viewers’ lost trust. “People are not happy with what is being offered locally,” he says. “Basically, what we need to do is to free the airwaves so that people can have a wide choice to choose from.”
According to the Zimbabwe All Media Products Survey (ZAMPS), exiled radio stations such as Radio VOP, Studio 7 and Short Wave Radio Africa now attract the majority of listeners in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, over 60 per cent of TV owners have abandoned state-controlled Zimbabwe television in favour of free-to-air regional and international channels.
To tap into international broadcasts, some Zimbabweans are making use of new technology. Particularly popular these days are free-to-air-decoders. Costing between 45 and 55 euros, they can be found at almost any electronic shop, even in small towns and remote business centres. They require no licence.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean government has requested all the exiled radio stations to register and regularize their operations. And yet, a disturbing trend where only President Mugabe’s loyalists have been awarded the operating licenses has been noted.
Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ), an organization tracking news coverage by the country’s media outlets, states that the coverage of critical voices by the state media is only negative. Such individuals are presented as enemies of the state when in fact they are opposed to President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) mindset.
Credibility-questioning Zimbabweans have gone so far as to call for a reconstitution of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe. The BAZ comprises Mugabe loyalists – chief among them is its current chairperson, who is also former chair of the Media and Information Commission. During the time he served in that role, Mahoso gets credit for the closure of several media houses, which some eight years ago had the courage to challenge the government of the day.