via Parastatals must be viable: Charamba | The Herald January 25, 2014 by Tendai Mugabe
The public applauded Government for moving in to scrap the Listener’s Licence Fees and its uncompromised stance on corruption which has become endemic in most public institutions. Our Senior Reporter Tendai Mugabe spoke to Presidential spokesperson Mr GeorgeCharamba who is also the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services on these and other issues.
TM: Recently you said Government would soon scrap the listener’s licenses. May you explain how Government come to that decision and will this not hurt ZBC by cutting off revenue stream for the broadcaster?
GC: The decision to scrap the listener’s license fee cannot be communicated or conveyed or achieved through an interview. What I did was to intimate possibilities for the future, namely that the Ministry was actively reviewing its position in respect of listener’s licenses. Basically our position is that you cannot punish Zimbabweans for possessing an asset, which is exactly what the law says. It says if you own a receiver, which might be a television, which might be a radio set, which might be a cell-phone or an iPad, then we must punish you through taxation. You can not punish ownership. It is immoral at law. That is the first reason why we have reservations with that law.
The second aspect, simply put that law has become unimplementable thanks to the convergence of technologies. Any communication gadget is a receiver so that means that I, George Charamba, will have to move home to home, checking who has a cell phone and ask them for listener’s licenses. It is absurd and you are offending the basic rule of law-making.
The law must make sense and it must not be expensive to enforce. So this is one law that has just become unenforceable given the new technological realities. Thirdly and more persuasively you are asking listeners to pay for ownership of a gadget and not for services. But what is more you are saying to ZBC: Get money for salaries not for improving broadcasting services to the listener. So there is absolutely no connection between the listeners fee and the programming futures of ZBC, which means you are literally making it a listener’s business to mind ZBC’s wage bill. Yet the relationship between ZBC and the listener is founded on programmes and that money is not linked to programmes. It is a freebie for ZBC and that creates quite a situation for us. We are actually saying ZBC must find other revenue streams — the same way other broadcasters in the country are surviving from the market, not from listener’s fees.
The last reason which makes the review quite compelling is the fact that the law makes uniform requirements on all broadcasters regardless of who owns you. Whether you are private or public, Government or non-government you must carry 75 percent local content; you must do something for our languages; you must do something for public affairs; you must grant public programming for Government activities.
So strictly speaking, while in terms of revenue sources we draw a distinction between a public broadcaster and private broadcasters, functionally the law makes both equal and it makes both share the same responsibilities. So there is no ground for preferring ZBC to any other broadcasters given the evenness of the law. What was I intimating? I was just running ahead of policy to indicate that there is a real decision that we might have to make in the in the Ministry to review that position. Reviewing that position need not necessarily translate into scrapping of the listener’s fee. It might mean renaming it, but it might also mean housing it in a different institution. For argument sake we can house it under the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe which is in fact the minder of the whole industry.
So if BAZ were to get some fee from listeners and use it to develop a good vibrant broadcasting industry I am sure the listeners would happily feel repaid. I think ZBC’s viability does not necessarily derive from listeners fees. It derives from ability to command a listenership and viewership and this is founded on good programming principles and secondly it is founded on good husbandry of resources. Those are the areas we should worry about and not listener’s fees.
TM: How soon should the nation expect this review?
GC: This is a legal process. Remember this is a taxation process which means there must be a law to enable it. The Minister will have to study the situation, look at the environment of broadcasting — and you notice it is an environment which is just evolving — and then consolidate his thinking on the matter to a point where he then originates a policy proposal to Government. The process is that after that policy proposal has been finished, you must take it to the Cabinet Committee on Legislation and the Cabinet Committee will look at it. If it is satisfied that it has good grounding then it will take it to Cabinet. Then we proceed to take matters to Parliament. But then I want to keep reminding the ZBC leadership that way back, I think it was in 2000 or thereabout, we changed them into a commercial company. They are not a parastatal anymore — they are a commercial company. So they cannot at one level enjoy being commercial and at another level still want to behave like a parastatal that is given powers of taxation. They cannot eat their cake and have it.
TM: ZBC was not allocated funds in the 2014 National Budget proposals. How will the national broadcaster be able to meet the 2015 digitalisation deadline given its current financial woes?
GC: I draw a distinction between a ZBC that is asking for operational money and a ZBC which is meeting its own operational costs but requesting from Government some support in laying down infrastructure. You see laying down infrastructure, the backbone for broadcasting or any other service, is fundamentally a public sector responsibility. So when it comes to digitalisation, it is important that Government chips in because we are talking about literally transforming an industry and the outlays are huge. But the responsibility is basically public. Governments the world over have a responsibility of laying down the infrastructure so that broadcasters can only compete on services not creating infrastructure as an entry barrier.
So to that extent ZBC will be entitled to some funding from the fiscus. But when it comes to its operational costs, when it comes to its programming costs, that is fundamentally a business proposition and Government has no business meeting that cost. That is why it was with a heavy heart that we were forced to, as Government, move in and pick up the wage bill of ZBC after a hefty failure on the part of the leadership of that corporation. How do you expect me as a Secretary for Information to accost the Secretary for Finance for money for programmes on the same day that my counterpart in the Ministry of Health is asking for pills with which to fight mosquito? The one has to do with existence, the other one has to do with a failed commercial project and there is basically no basis for comparison.
TM: As Government do you think ZBC will be able to meet the 2015 digitalisation deadline?
GC: I think it is a responsibility of Government. As I said it is an infrastructural proposition and that means it is a public assignment. And if you look closely at our Budget you notice that there was an acknowledgement on the part of the Ministry of Finance that this is an assignment which has international deadlines and therefore that we must be given a leeway to raise funds outside of the budget in order to meet that deadline.
There are very real consequences if Zimbabwe fails to meet that deadline. It means when all the countries switch over to digital systems and ZBC does not, any interference that comes from Zimbabwe to any of our neighbours is punishable and Zimbabwe will not have a defence. Any inference which is suffered by Zimbabwe from broadcasters who are within our neighbourhood and we have no recourse, We have no grounds for complaints because the International Telecommunications Union will say, hey you are out of step with the rest of the world. So this a practical question and come June 2015 we will have a real problem if we have not complied. So this is a do or die and I am quite confident that we should be able to raise resources to meet that deadline.
TM: A number of anomalies have been noted regarding the operations of ZBC, leading to the firing of its board and suspension of its chief executive officer Mr Happison Muchechetere. What measures is Government putting in place to ensure viability of ZBC so that problems that have led to the upheavals are not experienced again?
GC: I have never been convinced that ZBC was facing a viability crisis. I am fully convinced that ZBC was endowed with a viable leadership. We must draw a distinction between viability of ZBC versus failures of its own leadership. You find that the real remedy is to make sure that ZBC has sound leadership. Maybe in the past we have made a mistake of thinking that people with editorial command should be presumed to have administrative acumen. The two are not necessarily coterminous. You cannot be a good administrator because you are a good editor nor you become a good editor because you are a good administrator.
These are distinct, disparate skills which on a happy day will occur in one body but generally you find that they do not always co-exist in the same mind. I doubt very much that I would have been a good administrator had it not been for my experience in Government even though I could run a paper very easily given my skills in journalism. But we have confused a very basic question. If we are talking about ZBC as an administrative complex, what skills can drive it competently? I am slowly coming to the conclusion that it cannot be an editorial skill that will drive ZBC competently. Which means we might have to work with a very different model where we are saying let us get ZBC a competent administrator, a competent, shrewd business leadership which will mind the administrative side of ZBC mind the commercial side of ZBC, mind the financial side of ZBC so that ZBC ticks as an administrative complex, as a commercial proposition. Then we ask ourselves what is the core business of ZBC — it is to entertain, it is to educate, it is to inform.
Who does that best? It is obviously a person with editorial skill. How then do we meld the two skills that we need to work in combination for a viable ZBC? I am sure we are likely to get a better resolution to what has been a perennial problem to the ministry. I also want to say that all along we have been dismissing chief executives who we consider performing below par. We have forgotten that there is one continual element at ZBC.
That continual element has been its culture and that culture has grown quite negative in the sense that it has been used to successive bad practices and you are getting to a point where that culture ensnares any leadership we find for ZBC. Shefu mungada here kubata nepapa? Ko tikakugadzirirai housing package? Ko tikawedzera salary yenyu? Ko tikati torai fuel without any limits? As a result you have a captive leadership. My proposition, and that is my recommendation to the Ministers, is to say this time around let the knife cut deep, deep enough to reach the marrow so that we reinvent a new work ethic, we reinvent a new integrity for ZBC. Do not dislodge top leadership; dislodge an adverse culture which perpetuates certain bad habits at ZBC. We have to look at the financial side, we have to look at the administrative side, we have took at the human resource side and look at the editorial side and then reinvent all those dimensions to make sure we have a brand new ZBC, which is listener oriented, commercially sensible and administratively sound.
TM: Turning to the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, some people have raised concerns over the appointment of Dr Tafataona Mahoso as chairperson considering that he is also the chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe Media Commission. Is there no conflict of interest? What was the Government’s rationale for making the appointment?
GC: I have never regarded that as an administrative question. I have always regarded it as a political proposition. Dr Mahoso is a vigorous social commentator. He also happens to wield very strong political positions and to a certain extent he is my Siamese twin. I also have the same weakness. When you are that kind of a character you make very strong friends and you also draw strong opponents. Really it has not been about Mahoso having two roles; it has been about two roles belonging to Mahoso the person. If we were to start from the premise that anyone who is playing one role cannot be chairperson of another board then I do not know who is going to chair our bodies because all of our chairpersons across companies are professionals playing a role elsewhere.
At Zimpapers you are lucky that you have Dr (Charles) Utete who is a retired civil servant. Quite the opposite, the very arguments which are said to disqualify Dr Mahoso, qualify for that post. But that is to be polemical. Dr Mahoso is a trainer apart from being an expert in public communication. We wanted a licensing authority to be under a mind that is well-grounded in terms of the requirements of the media but we also wanted a person with requisite maturity, a person who would be sensitive to what in fact had become a political question. Licensing in Zimbabwe has become a political question and we wanted a mind with the facility to encompass the complexity of the political question. The CEO of BAZ is an engineer, and rightly so because broadcasting beyond being a values issue is an engineering proposition. So you have to create some kind of complementarity between the engineer who is the CEO and the board which is editorially alive.
We find those qualities in Dr Mahoso and his colleagues on the board. Where I find the question a bit dishonest is in that the expectation that we have from certain political quarters of a Zimbabwe Media Commission which is also in charge of broadcasting So that means the principle of someone working for ZMC having something to do with broadcasting might not be in contention. What may be in contention is the incumbent and as a public servant I do not start from the premise of hates and likes. I start from the premise of competences. Get it from me, Dr Mahoso has served us very well and that is why there is all this massive progress that has happened against scepticism. In a matter of months from now Zimbabwe will become a Tower of Babel. There will so many radio stations, hopefully for every city apart from the already existing ones. We hope the applicants are serious enough and we are confident BAZ under Mahoso’s leadership will take decisions that are correct.
TM: Zimbabwe has endured serious onslaught of negative publicity by pirate radio stations that broadcast outside the country’s borders. Is there anything Government can do to stop such broadcasts or to at least ensure the pirate radio stations operate within the realm of regulation?
GC: These broadcasting stations are extra territorial which means essentially the instrument of law cannot be bought into play. There is a real danger of a raw remedy to a nagging disease. I start from the premise that Zimbabwe is attacked abroad because it is attacked at home. Studio 7 does not create voices, it gets those voices from here; so too does Shortwave Radio and so too does The Zimbabwean, although I have noticed that The Zimbabwean has now registered locally. This means the editorial drivers are you and me, Zimbabweans who badmouth our country. What America and Britain have merely done is to provide a technical platform for the broadcasting of that badmouthing which is essentially ours. So you want to get toothpaste and a toothbrush to clean that bad mouth that smells around the owner and everyone will be happy afterwards. But I have interacted with a number of players, Zimbabweans who are manning those stations, and that in itself is ironical.
The workers there are not Americans, they are not British but they are Zimbabweans. When you interact with them they will tell you they are tired, they want to come back home, they are not well paid, they do not believe in what they are doing. Sometimes they feel guilty they are being used against their own people. Some might come back home soon; some might come back a little later. But I am convinced that the best way of making sure that there is no such adverse reports from abroad is to make them irrelevant to Zimbabwe. When we get all these licenses operational, we will see the sphere of influence of those pirate radio stations will dwindle day by day. The signs are already apparent. But I also have a bit of a problem.
Sometimes Zimbabweans have legitimised those broadcast intrusions. When we have a Government minister talking through those radio stations, sometimes even forcing our own public radio, our local media to quote those stations because an official has chosen to speak to the world via them and not via his own, then we are essentially legitimising those instruments of aggression against Zimbabwe. I fail to understand why we are not creating a situation where Government officials air, ventilate their views through national institutions so that those pirate radio stations have no choice but to acknowledge what we are publishing at home. Once that happens it means they are playing second fiddle to us. So it is not only about a bad mouth but a mouth that speaks on a wrong platform and must be controlled one way or the other.
TM: There have been some concerns that there is a thin line between your role as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, and your brief as the President’s spokesperson. May you explain how the two are separated?
GC: Actually I am disappointed that people still see a line albeit, one. There should not be a line as a matter of fact. Time was when we used to have a press unit which was really servicing the President but structurally under the old Ministry of Information. The only difference is that junior officers were seconded to do that role. At some point the President thought the volume of work generated by his office was such that he needed a press unit that was resident. I pioneered that press unit. Before me there was Cde Lindiwe Sadza daughter to Dr Sadza, and Cde Andrew Mutandwa.
Structurally they were still under the Ministry of Information but functionally they were attached to the President’s Office. I marked that break where the press unit was structurally and functionally put under the President’s Office. It created some friction between that unit, which was now structurally and functionally under the President, and the parent Ministry which felt overshadowed and understandably so because I was in daily contact with the President, something that the Ministry would not be able to do functionally. So I was close to the President’s thinking and the result of it all was that by the time we go to 1999-2000 there was virtually no Ministry of Information to talk about because the President’s Press Unit had grown at the expense of the Ministry. A decision was then made, why don’t we abolish the Ministry of Information and create a directorate of information under the President’s Office. Professor Jonathan Moyo and myself were founders of that new arrangement. We grew under the wings of the President’s Office with the then Secretary, that was myself, also doubling as the Presidential spokesperson. The differentiation of duties was very clear I spoke on and for the President, the Minister spoke on and for Government. I would not touch anything to do with Cabinet business; I would not touch anything to with other ministries except on the instruction of the President.
Generally I would refer those to my Minister because those were issues to do with Government. But of course when it comes to matters concerning the President’s mind, his thinking which has not taken the form of policy then I would keep dropping hints on the direction which Government would take eventually. There was no friction with Minister Moyo and his successors, right up to Minister Shamu, because that has been the distinction. When we were still under the President’s Office we became visible and also our activities became broad. The President then said you are now an anomaly to remain a department under the President’s Office, I think we have nurtured you as a department, grown you even to a point we can release you into the Government as a fully-fledged Ministry, so we went back. But the President having that institutional memory knew how creating a unit to mind his day to day activities will create conflict or some sapping. You sap out the parent Ministry of Information. He (President Mugabe) says why don’t we get the Permanent Secretary to remain with that dual function as both the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry as well as the spokesperson of the President. When we had the GNU, and Minister Shamu had been appointed the new Minster of Information, I actually authored a Memo to the President proposing that in the context t of the GNU and its strange politics would it not have been wiser for us to go back to the old system where the President would have his own press unit distinct from the Ministry of Information and my reasons were very political.
Under the GNU the Prime Minister was the head in implementational terms of all ministries which means he was above the Minister of Information and my fear was that the PM would gag the Ministry using the hierarchy of Government and once he gagged the Minister and the Secretary then implicitly he would have gagged the spokesperson of the President and that would create conflict between him and the President. I did not see that as a viable arrangement which is why I wanted to recreate that unit for the President outside the Ministry so that even if there was some kind of conflict between us and the Prime Minister who was coming from a different party then the President would not be disabled. In fact he would then rely on the spokesperson of the President to keep the agenda moving forward. The President was of a very different view. In the first place he thought I was not comfortable with Minister Shamu which was very far from it. In fact I had my best time as a civil servant under Minister Shamu.
Then he also thought maybe I was tired of the Ministry because the question he asked is so who is he proposing as the new Presidential spokesperson? My recommendation was either raise Cde (Regis) Chikowore as the new spokesperson for the President or I would have to vacate my high horse as the Permanent Secretary of Information and become a full-time spokesperson of the President. But I was very clear that it was impolitic to combine both roles given the new hierarchy under GNU.
The President said NO you have to keep both and you are old enough to manage both portfolios which manage I did; but the MDC leadership was not happy with that kind of arrangement. But for me it was a very versatile arrangement because I could speak as Secretary of Information on matters to do with the structures of Government but still escape the limitations of being Secretary of Information by taking new identity as spokesperson of the President, so it gives me some very malleable room. I can assure you that to the MDC the two roles were used to devastating effect. I am fundamentally a political creature which is why I do not see myself playing any role in the civil service after the President has retired. My fate is attached to the incumbent except for administrative procedures. My real wish is not to be a day longer in Government after the President’s retirement because whoever comes must be able to select their own team. So really there is no conflict I discharge my role as spokesperson very easily the same way I discharged my role as the Permanent Secretary. I hope the President does not feel I under served him by virtue of being a Permanent Secretary
TM: Are you at liberty to share with us some of your Ministry’s plans for 2014?
GC: This year for me is about digilatilistion. We just have to make real progress on the ground in terms of digitalising the broadcasting system and that means the transmission network as well as the studios. For me that is an obsession and I am reading the same obsessive concerns from my two Ministers. You know I am in a very unhappy situation where one is a Professor and the other one is a broadcaster so there is no running away from that agenda. It is closing in and I feel very hemmed in because of legitimate concerns which are being raised by both ministers around that subject matter. We are very much behind schedule. We have not had means from the fiscus but I cannot go to my counterpart in Finance crying all the time for money.
Equally my ministers are not about to rush to the President wringing their hands in the air and pleading for Presidential intervention. The President has hired a dog and he must not be made to bark. We are the guys who should move the agenda and I find it very bad for a Ministry to rush back to the President and say it cannot be done by us. Why are we here? We have to find solutions and for me that is my preoccupation for 2014. We also have to restructure, and restructure in a very fundamental way, all the units under us. A head start has been forced on us by circumstances. The situation at ZBC has made us circumstantial leaders in terms of this whole thrust of restructuring parastatals. But we are happy to bear that burden because if you consider that more than 40 percent of the GDP is influenced by our parastatals it means where they become dysfunctional the loss is of the same magnitude, 40 percent. So far from being a boon to the economy they become a bane to the economy.
This means if we are serious about Zim Asset, we just have to make sure that all institutions that make the public economy must be functional and no punches must be pulled on that one. I know people will have hard feelings, but sorry that is the job I have to do and on that job there won’t be friends, there won’t be foes. I am looking at functionality of all the units that fall under the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services and we almost felt that our new name as a ministry is a package of punishment. For the first time we were called the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services and lo and behold what happens soon after the appointment, our broadcasting side is ailing as if work was cut out for us. But we treat that as a challenge and we have to sort things right. New Ziana must get back to viability, ZBC must come right, Transmedia must make sure that the network is modernised, Kingstons must go back to its coverted role as the book seller of not just the country but of the region. Equally it must broaden its mandate to venture into broadcasting. That is a massive assignment for myself.
Zimpapers thank God has been a happy story but I still want Zimpapers to be a happier story and the moment they start sitting on their backside then I must be there to kick them and that will be done. Really we must reinvent the interface between Government and its institutions in a way that makes for efficiency and the Ministry of Information will be in the lead in that revolution. We still have two directorates which are still outstanding. We have a director of media services. That whole directorate has to be set up and set up in such a way that Government activities are known in the media on a daily basis.
I am not talking of the activities of the Ministry of Information or President’s activities but the whole Government. There must be someone who is co-ordinating visibility of Government officials vis-a-vis the media. We cannot have a situation where it is a problem of the reporter to find a minister or a civil servant who must be interviewed. It must be that department’s responsibility to make people available in a strategic and deliberate way.
Americans are our enemies but there are certain things that we should learn from them. They have what they call the line of the week where the whole administration will revolve around one issue at any given time. We must move towards that direction. Then of course we are going to have lots of radio stations. Government can no longer a bystander in terms of content production so that department of content production must come alive.