EDITORIAL COMMENT : Opening up the airwaves essential

One major test for the Second Republic is how far it goes with media reforms and, in particular, the opening up of the airwaves.

The Government has made headway in the process of repealing the controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA).

The offshoot of this process is evident in the gazetting of the Freedom of Information Bill and the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill, which are now before Parliament.

The third Bill — the Privacy/Personal Data Protection Bill — is yet to be gazetted.

Once done, the three will complete the repeal of AIPPA and signal the Government’s commitment to further reforms.

Last week, the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services told Parliament that the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) was considering licensing more television stations and that this could be as soon as March next year.

Although Zimbabwe was among the first countries on the continent to have a television station, it has remained stuck with one, while other countries have gone on to overtake it.

A number of investors — most of them local — anxious to enter the television broadcasting arena, have been mobilising resources ahead of their applications for licences.

Media law reform advocacy groups and activists, campaigning for broadcasting diversity, argue that the slow progress in opening up the airwaves blurs the distinction between the first and second republics.

But they fail to acknowledge the work and money spent in the digitalisation programme, which was a necessary precursor to the issuance of more licences.

That exercise, on its own, was a commitment to opening up the airwaves.

Movement on licensing of the six new channels will be a major declaration by the new dispensation of its commitment to usher Zimbabwe into a brave new world.

Broadcasting is a significant component in the promotion of freedom of expression and access to information by members of the public, especially in Zimbabwe, where media density remains low and media products remain inaccessible to many.

Apart from broadcasting diversity, the entry of new players in the sector will result in competition, and competition tends to bring out the best in everyone.

More players in the sector will result in employment creation and at the same time better programming, while developing and improving local creative talent.

More television channels will also result in greater promotion of the other local languages.

While awaiting the granting of licences, prospective players need to use the intervening period to get their houses in order.

Before the advent of commercial radios, there were a lot of expectations raised, but not much has come out of these stations.

Many have found themselves financially hamstrung, probably a result of the prevailing economic circumstances.

Given the expectations raised on the entry of new television players, it would be unfortunate if licence holders ended up with stalled or stillborn projects.

Television requires a lot of investment.

Many of those pushing for licenses may not be able to follow through their desires when confronted with what it takes to bring in the technology, human resources and content.

Very few will be able to go it alone without foreign investors.

All the same, we are encouraged by the commitment by Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Monica Mutsvangwa that after the reconstitution of the BAZ board, it should be possible to move towards the licensing of other stations.

Going by experience gathered during the awarding of licences to radio stations, the licensing process requires applicants to satisfy the authorities that they have capacity to deliver before being granted licences and that it also requires a lot of patience.

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