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Zimbabwe nixes commercial TV channels

State mouthpiece ZBC keeps monopoly

The evening newscast on Zimbabwean pubcaster ZBC could have been culled from a Soviet-era newsreel, with references to ruling party comrades, bland statements from the politburo and the occasional tirade against Western imperialists. Primetime viewers, though, are short on options.

The pubcaster, which has been on air in various incarnations since 1960, has a monopoly on local airwaves via its two channels and four radio stations, which broadcast in English as well as local lingos, Shona and Ndebele.

In recent months, the battle has been heating up to liberalize the country’s restrictive media space. But two years after a shaky coalition government took power, with media reform a key part of its mandate, the broadcast media remains firmly in the hands of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front party.

“The media is being used as propaganda weapons of Zanu-PF, and they (politicians) are not likely to make any concessions,” says Andrew Moyse, project coordinator of the Media Monitoring Project (Zimbabwe), an independent body that promotes freedom of expression and responsible journalism in Zimbabwe by monitoring news and current affairs on radio, TV and papers.

Earlier this year, there were hopes that the government might turn over a new leaf after the Zimbabwe Media Commission granted licenses to five independent newspapers. Expectations were raised for broadcast reform last month, when Minister of Information Webster Shamu said that licensing private broadcasters was high on the government’s agenda.

But legislation introduced just days later did not include provisions for new players to enter the broadcast arena.

Reps for ZBC could not be reached for comment.

Zimbabwe once had an independent channel, Joy TV, which was on air from 1997 until 2002, when it was shuttered for allegedly failing to pay fees to ZBC.

Moyse says that while government pays lip service to liberalizing the media, “nothing has been locked down in legal terms.”

Last month the Zimbabwe Chapter of advocacy group the Media Institute of Southern Africa condemned the government’s Broadcasting Services Act, which the advocacy org said contains provisions that “make it impossible for the easy entry of new, private players into the broadcasting sector.”

The Institute believes the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe’s wide discretionary powers are in the hands of too few players — all government appointees.

“What we’re asking for is an independent commission, and not a biased one,” he says.

Moyse says that even cash-strapped Zimbabweans are “using their dollars to subscribe on any level” to pay TV platforms like South Africa’s DStv.

“The people know what they want, and they don’t want ZBC,” he says.

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