Zim urgently needs broadcast sector reforms

Source: Zim urgently needs broadcast sector reforms – The Standard May 20, 2018

A news report carried on the front page of the government-controlled Herald newspaper on May 16 announcing that the news outlet’s parent group, Zimbabwe Newspapers Ltd (Zimpapers), had been awarded a “television licence” has stirred various policy and legal debates.

By Nigel Nyamutumbu

These debates do not only stem from the fact that the headline and import of the story was misleading, given that Zimpapers was not awarded a television licence per se, but also more generally on how the government-controlled media group was expanding into becoming a media oligopoly.

Zimpapers owns a digital and publishing division that oversees various newspapers and magazines, a commercial printing division, radio broadcasting stations and is now officially a television broadcasting sector player.

Media ownership by a single entity poses a huge threat to media freedom and in the case of Zimbabwe this could amount to total state control over information both directly and indirectly.

As various media monitoring reports have observed, the news content that is produced by media outlets under the auspices of Zimpapers is by and large favourable to the state and the ruling party at best and at worst a propaganda tool for entrenching totalitarianism.

In any case, concentration of media ownership, even by private players, is not a democratic proposition and is actually one of the reasons media stakeholders have been advocating for the review of the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), which to all intents and purposes has an unclear framework of guarding against media monopolies.

It is important to guard against media monopolies as this poses a threat to media integrity when a small number of companies and individuals control the media market.

Media integrity being the ability of the media to play its democratic role of serving public interest without the influence of the state, private players and political actors.

Media integrity is particularly threatened in cases when there are relations of patronage between the owners of the media and political centres of power.

Such a situation enables excessive control of the media for particular political interests, which subverts the democratic role of the media.

The argument to safeguard against media oligopolies does not in any way suggest that the media should not pursue avenues of generating income and become sustainable.
By all means, the state should create an environment for the industry to grow and for citizens to be spoilt for choice while exercising their rights to free expression and access to information.
However, expansion of the industry must not merely be defined by resources and funding, but by the extent to which the media is diverse at all levels, including ownership and content.
This is why it was rather startling for the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) to announce rather prohibitive fees for the three licences, including webcasting, video on demand and content distribution that the media regulator offered to issue early this year.

In addition to a non-refundable application fee of $2 500, the license fees ranged from $20 000 to $150 000.

It thus did not come as much of a surprise that the two recipients of the content distribution licence were two major players, Econet Zimbabwe and Zimpapers.

Unlike the terrestrial television licence, which uses frequencies and is only currently held by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), the content distribution licence entails distribution of content via satellite.

Both these companies are reported to have paid the licence fees and they have running content distribution services, in the form of Kwese TV and Zimpapers Television Network (ZTN) respectively.

While there are notable legal irregularities in how these licences were issued, including the composition of the BAZ board itself, which as at the time of this submission was yet to be fully legally constituted, and that BAZ did not follow due procedures in accordance with the law, the bigger concerns pertain to entrenchment of media monopolies in Zimbabwe, lack of broadcast diversity and the longstanding issue of the ownership of Zimpapers.

Other concerns which arise from this recent development include the urgent need to review the BSA and the threat to citizens’ rights online given the appetite by BAZ to regulate webcasting and video on demand services.

In this digital era, where citizens regularly webcast on social media platforms such as Facebook Live, it is worrying that BAZ calls for applications with such high fees for regulating such platforms.

In light of these concerns, it is imperative that there is transparency around the ownership and by extension operation of Zimpapers, which former Information, Media and Broadcasting Services minister Jonathan Moyo in a recent interview with The Standard pointed out that the state is illegally controlling the media group.
It remains unclear on who actually runs Zimpapers and what their interests are.

In some instances government posits the media group as a private entity as listed on the stock exchange, while on the other hand maintaining full grip on the operations of the entity on the basis of the 51% that should be owned by the public.

This crisis of ownership should be resolved and Zimpapers with all its concentrated media products within its portfolio, including the latest satellite television service, should serve and be accountable to members of the public, who remain the rightful owners of the company.

Equally important, BAZ should licence community radio stations not least to ensure that there is genuine diversity within the broadcast sector, but also to counter the political, ideological and economic threats posed by media monopolies.

Lastly, but by no means least, there is urgent need for the government to review the BSA for the country to have an independent and democratic regulatory framework that is anchored on constitutional rights to free expression, the right to establish broadcast media outlets and the right to access information.

The revised legislation should have a democratic framework for guarding against media monopolies and ensure the independence of the regulator.

We need an Act that is in sync with the digital age and the ongoing digitisation programme ensuring that the law is contextual and alive to the current trends.

If there is one thing that our government and policymakers can learn from the disgruntlement from certain sectors of the public arising from the Zimpapers television licence saga, it is that there is urgent need to reform our broadcasting sector.

l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently serving as the Programmes manager for the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on njnya2@gmail.com or Whatsapp +263772 501 557