Zimbabwe 2023 Harmonised Elections Campaign and the Choked Airwaves
By Lloyd Hazvineyi
A random switch to Zimbabwe’s state-owned radio stations will coincide with the signature rhythmic sound of the jerusarema drum signalling that it is time for an hourly news broadcast. As is always the case, the news broadcast starts giving an update on what the president was up to on the previous day and where he will go on the morrow. The news presenters on the other end of the radio make no attempt to go off-script and they give a full description of the president- the first secretary of ZANU-PF and the Commander in Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Dr Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.
The bulletin is sometimes followed by random chit-chat as the presenters interact with their real and imagined listeners. ZANU-PF jingles such as ED pfee are thrown in between different sessions. Prime time radio is then characterised by Mnangagwa’s speeches from recent rallies. Late-night broadcasts are characterised by political commentary where apparent ZANU-PF loyalists under the guise of independent political analysts discuss matters of interest.
These snippets tell a bigger story of how state-owned radios in Zimbabwe are serving the partisan interests of the ruling party through their diverse broadcasts. This is the challenge of biased airwaves in Zimbabwe as the nation approaches harmonised elections set for 23 August. State-owned radios as part of the public media have remained largely in the hands of the ruling ZANU-PF party. While Zimbabwe has a total of 11 candidates contesting for the presidency, only the current president is enjoying unlimited access to the state-owned broadcasting infrastructure and this has given Mnangagwa a political head start.
This is a serious cause for concern that casts a cloud of doubt on the evenness of the playing field as the country prepares for the forthcoming harmonised elections. Zimbabwe ratified the African Charter for Democracy Elections and Governance which states that governments should “ensure fair and equitable access by contesting parties and candidates to state-controlled media during elections”.
Whilst Zimbabwe has ratified this progressive international and regional convention, the ruling ZANU-PF party has remained in control of all political conversations on state-run radio stations. There are many ways in which the radio airwaves have been monopolised by the ruling party. One such is the deliberate and systematic silencing of all opposition political voices. In fact, the country’s largest opposition movement, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has been deliberately left out even in news broadcasts. The systematic silencing has even extended to artists whose music is deemed anti-government. The most recent case is that of reggae artist Winky D (Wallace Chirumiko) who has not received airplay following his album, Eureka Eureka, which was viewed by ZANU-PF loyalists as smacking of anti-government rhetoric. The absence of Winky D music on national radio stations confirms reports that the government ordered all state-run radios to mute the artist’s works. Chimurenga music icon Thomas Mapfumo was also banned for protesting corruption in Zimbabwe.
While opposition political actors are denied airplay, Mnangagwa’s presidential rallies held in preparation for the harmonised elections have received full coverage on ZBC’s Radio Zimbabwe. The speeches are recorded live and rebroadcast especially during prime time in order to give the message a maximum reach.
The potential role of radio as a peaceful campaign tool
Radio by its very nature is supposed to foster national cohesion and political coherence. In times like these when political temperatures are slowly rising, state-run radios ought to provide platforms for rational political debate and moderated conversations where, for example, all 11 presidential candidates present and defend their manifestos to the listeners. By doing so, the electorate becomes well-informed on the different competing ideas and this will help them make informed choices. By giving all candidates a platform to air out their respective messages, an atmosphere for political tolerance is also created.
Bearing in mind Zimbabwe’s history of political violence, it is important to note that state-run radio stations are key in enabling peaceful and fair elections. This is because mobilising support through radio does not necessarily require crowds to physically meet. Although this alternative has its own challenges such as electricity supply and access to technology, its availability to all political actors helps in levelling the political playing field which is currently tilted in favour of the ruling party.
Alternative radio and their limits
There is a need to continuously lobby the government to open up state-run radios to opposition parties in order to steer robust political conversations and constructive debate. This is a difficult task but not impossible. There are already legislative systems in place that give some hope. These include the Parliament Portfolio Committee on Information and Publicity which comprises opposition parliamentarians. These systems should be effectively used to demand the right to access public media by opposition parties.
If access to the airwaves remains limited to only the ruling party, available alternatives include community radios and underground short-wave channels. As of October 2022, there were 21 licensed community radios in Zimbabwe. However, half of them are operating under quasi-governmental and ruling party structures. The other downside is that community radios in Zimbabwe, according to Section 10 (1) of the Broadcasting Services Act, are prohibited from broadcasting political content. It is clear that such a prohibition was deliberately enacted to thwart any subversive content.
Short-wave radio as the other alternative has its own limits which include jamming by the state. However, with the advances in technology, short-wave radios that use digital satellite networks have recently made breakthroughs against jamming. One success story is that of a digital satellite radio station used by the Ambazonia secessionist movement in southern Cameroon to coordinate the armed resistance against the government. Its role has been to offer alternative political updates to the citizens in the wake of excessive bias by state-run radios. With at least 87% of Zimbabwe’s households both in urban and rural areas owning mobile phones, progressive citizens have an opportunity to launch alternative satellite radios that can be accessed via mobile phones.
Why Zimbabwe should worry about radio monopolies
As we approach the harmonised elections, access to state-owned media including radio stations is important. In fact, it should be used as one of the yardsticks to measure the evenness of the political playing field. The credibility of an election should not only be measured only by what transpires at the polling stations, but also through equitable access to mobilisation infrastructure by all parties concerned. In the case of Zimbabwe, access to state-owned radio already shows that the scale is tilted in favour of the ruling party. By denying dissenting voices a right to make use of the public media for political purposes, ZANU-PF has maintained a worrying sonic monopoly that should be challenged through all rational means available.
Any political movement that seriously wants to politically connect with the masses should establish a sonic presence even in the remotest places that are difficult to access physically- and radio is one such technology that is capable of doing that effectively.
Lloyd Hazvineyi is a historian of Zimbabwe currently based at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests are on the history of guerrilla radio broadcasting in Zimbabwe. He has co-authored two chapters in a book titled Guerrilla Radios in Southern Africa: Broadcasters, Technology, Propaganda Wars and the Liberation War published in 2020 by Wits University Press.