Zimbabwe must licence private broadcasters transparently

OPINION – Media reports that Zimbabwe will soon licence two commercial radio stations is welcome but it must be done transparently.

As the devil is always in the details, it remains to be seen how the licensing will be done and to whom. However, it would be naïve for the regime to try to silence critics by handing out licences to the regime’s loyalists in order to promote paternalistic propaganda under the guise of black economic empowerment at the expense of untapped impartial and professional talent with business acumen across racial and ethnic lines.

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The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe would be best advised to ensure a level playing field as it is expected to completely transform the broadcasting industry in Zimbabwe without sacrificing quality and credibility.

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The freeing of Zimbabwe’s airwaves is long overdue to allow for business growth and diversity and well as give the public value for their hard-earned money for information, education and entertainment. Despite earning independence in 1980, Zimbabwe is still in the wilderness as far as broadcasting is concerned when compared to its neighbour, South Africa which has transformed the industry beyond recognition with great dividends.

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For instance, even during apartheid days i.e. before 1994, South Africa already had two commercial radio stations, Radio 702 and Capital Radio and one private pay-TV service, M-Net, in addition to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

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According to the National Association of Broadcasters, having started the ball rolling with the establishment of the community radio sector in 1994, the regulator turned its attention to commercial radio in 1996 – privatising six lucrtative SABC stations: Highveld Sterio (Gauteng), Radio Jacaranda (Gauteng), East Coast Radio (KwaZulu Natal), KFM (Western Cape), Radio Algoa (Eastern Cape) and OFM (Free State). In 1997 the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) issued 8 new commercial radio licences in South Africa (nab.org.za).

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Since then, gross advertising revenue for South Africa’s broadcasting industry has been estimated to have increased from just over R2 billion to almost R8.5 billion between 1994 and 2006.

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While, Zimbabwe’s licensing fees of US15,000 payable annually plus 1 percent of the new operator’s gross annual turnover are reasonable, however, there is need for clarification on what the levy would be used for by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe.

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Ideally, the levy or tax on broadcasters should go towards funding the removal of prime-time advertisements from the state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation as done e.g. in France. That is the only way of ensuring you don’t milk the cow until it starts bleeding. Advertisers should be made to support private as well as public broadcasters for there to be a basis for a levy.

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Zimbabwe must licence private broadcasters transparently. The country has endured a very long period of arrested development for narrow paternalistic reasons. It’s time to move on.

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Clifford Chitupa Mashiri, Political Analyst, London, zimanalysis2009@gmail.com

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