Government “assistance” in establishing community radio stations threatens media independence and impartiality

One of the most beautiful assets we are blessed with as human beings is the gift of language - in which we can express ourselves in a most articulate and creative way.

Tendai Ruben Mbofana

 

There are always occurrences in one’s life where particular adages, which aptly describe these circumstances, easily come to mind – as the beauty of these sayings paint a perfect picture.

Yesterday, February 13, 2022, was International Radio Day – and, as I watched events commemorating this most important day (whereby, the unquestionably crucial role radio plays in people’s lives was recognized) in Zimbabwe unfolding, there were one or two adages that found themselves playing around in my mind.

I could not help myself thinking, “itsitsi dzeyi bachura kubvisa mwana wemvana madzihwa” (loosely translated from Shona means, what manner of kindness is it when a bachelor volunteers to wipe mucus off a single mother’s baby).

The other was a common English saying – “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.

How else was I supposed to think when the government of Zimbabwe – through its deputy information minister, Kindness Paradza – proudly announced that they would gladly equip community radio stations, “as they played a key role in promoting local languages and culture in line with Vision 2030”?

On the surface, and at first glance, it sounds all well and good – in fact, appearing a most noble and welcome offer, especially due to the restrictive and constricting economic landscape facing Zimbabwe.

However, we need to meticulously study the greater impact, and possible implications, of such a move, particularly towards media independence and impartiality.

That is where my two adages become most relevant.

Community radio stations are, by their very nature, expected to be run and funded by their own communities (as the name unambiguously states) – as a means of ensuring that only interests of those particular communities are served, without any undue influences.

Therefore, whether a community radio station seeks to advance the interests of a certain language and culture, or geographic area, or even religious persuasion – in order to safeguard and guarantee the unadulteration of such objectives, funding mechanism should be focused on the affected communities.

Making room for “outside” input – be it in the form of donations, financial assistance, or even advertising – only enables influences that carry with them a real danger of adversely affecting media policy within the radio station, thereby seriously compromising a central part of any media house… independence and impartiality.

That is why I initially asked – “itsitsi dzeyi bachura kubvisa mwana wemvana madzihwa”?

This is even more true for community radio stations – which are supposed to be apolitical, and only strictly serving the interests of their stated communities.

What makes this “offer” by the deputy information minister even more disturbing is that – the government of Zimbabwe is already an interested party on the media landscape in the country, through its state-controlled media houses, as, the ZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) – raising the question, would this not be a brazen conflict of interests?

Let us not forget that, community radio stations are not there to complement the ZBC – but, are in fact, serious competitors, who actually pose a huge threat to the state broadcaster’s waning listenership, especially since the advent of commercial radio stations nearly a decade ago.

What sense is there if, for instance, Manchester United were to offer Swansea FC some financial and material assistance?

Would football fans not be justified in wondering what the catch and ulterior motives were?

As we all know – “he who pays the piper calls the tune”!

Furthermore, it is an open secret that the Zimbabwe regime had never been eager for community radio stations – and, was forced to reluctantly issue licences, after immense and unrelenting pressure from such media organizations as the ZACRAS (Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), and so many more.

This reluctance was primarily premised on the authorities’ paranoia of any independent media that possessed a real potential to question government and ruling party narratives and policies.

Which explains why, despite Zimbabwe being one of the very first countries on the African continent to establish a broadcasting station during the colonial era, it maintained the shameful tag of being the only nation to remain with one broadcaster decades after independence – today, boasting of a single television channel.

Therefore, why the sudden interest in community radio stations, and a desire to “support” them?

This “love” needs to be approached with caution, and taken with a pinch of salt – since our government has never been known for being an honest player, but is always motivated by sinister agendas.

Once these community radio stations are furnished and equiped with the aid of government – they would have no choice but to parrot the usual ruling party propaganda and drivel.

Already, Paradza’s boss, information minister Monica Mutsvangwa – during the national International Radio Day commemorations in Chiredzi – set the tone for what is to be expected from these fledgling stations.

She did not mince her words when she told them to promote “government policies” and “national interests” – which is a misnomer for “ZANU PF propaganda”  – such as, Vision 2030, and NDS1 (National Development Strategy), which are known to be the ruling establishment’s trump cards for the forthcoming 2023 harmonized elections.

If a community radio station were to challenge, for example, a Chinese mining company – which would be desecrating local communities’ heritage sites, or intending to forcefully vacate them from their ancestry lands – this would easily be construed by the government as working against “national interests”, and an affront towards “Vision 2030”.

It is now up to these community radio stations to decide whether they want to defend their ethics and principles – by resisting to be infiltrated and unduly influenced, through refusing any “external or outside” assistance.

Indeed, the prevailing economic climate in the country makes it extremely difficult to source funding from their specific communities – but, other means of funding should be creatively formulated, that ensure and guarantee credibility, by safeguarding their media independence and impartiality.

Nonetheless, selling one’s soul to the devil should never be an option!

© Tendai Ruben Mbofana is a social justice activist, writer, and social commentator. Please feel free to contact him on WhatsApp/Call: +263715667700 / +263782283975, or Calls Only: +263788897936 / +263733399640, or email: [email protected]

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