It seems the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Authority's financial woes need divine intervention. As a result, the broadcaster is at war with Zimbabwean musicians. ZBC is mandated to provide its financial statements to the Zimbabwe Music Rights Association for calculations of musicians' royalties according to an agreement entered many years ago, but according to Zimura, ZBC has stopped doing so. They have also stopped paying the royalties due to musicians for the music which they play on air.
In March, 1988 the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and Zimura were locked up in a legal battle involving royalties where ZBC was supposed to pay composers for playing their music on both radio and television.
After a High Court order, ZBC had threatened to stop playing all locally made records but the dispute was later solved amicably when ZBC realised that Zimura also had power to stop the playing of international music since they act as the agency of the International Confederation of Authors and Composers' Societies (CISAC) formed in Paris, France, way back in 1926 and Performance Rights Society (PRS) of Britain.
ZBC agreed to pay a percentage of its advertising revenue towards both local and international music composers. In 2012, history is repeating itself. It looks like that battle which was fought and won in 1988 is about to begin once again as Zimura has applied for a court interdict stopping ZBC from playing music on their radio and television stations. This is due to non-payment for the second time, of royalties due to Zimura by ZBC since 2009.
According to Albert Nyathi, Zimura's board chairman, a High Court interdict to bar the national broadcaster from playing any music will soon be put into effect.
Speculation at ZBC is rife that this move by Zimura is only posturing on their part as musicians depend on ZBC for air play in order to sell their music.
However, with the coming in of two more radio stations in Zimbabwe, namely Star FM and Zi-FM, there is a new outlet for music as the musicians are now able to seek alternative routes for air play.
The musicians also accuse ZBC of robbing them their full payments by submitting inaccurate music log sheets to Zimura.
Polisile Ncube, Zimura director, says the organisation is in the process of installing a computerised system that automatically logs music once played on radio or TV. Although Zimura are yet to do this, at Zi-FM this arrangement is already in place.
The sophisticated equipment at Zi-FM which was imported from Italy is designed to automatically record any song that is played on air. This will enable the station to pay musicians their royalties without leaving it up to broadcasters to log in manually every song they play. The broadcasting studio equipment which uses sophisticated signal distribution, is entirely digitalised and presenters are equipped with systems which allow them to interact with listeners in real time. In a few months' time musicians will be able to receive composers' royalties from the latest two radio stations and it is hoped that ZBC will follow suit.
After failing to receive their royalties on June 1, the usual date for payments, angry artistes besieged the Zimura offices in Harare, accusing the association of not being tough on the public broadcaster.
This is what has forced Zimura to launch an urgent court application on the issue. A High Court case number 776/12 is pending.
Under the contract with Zimura as the manager of artistes' rights and collecting agency, the broadcaster is supposed to pay royalties for music played on air.
Zimura lawyer Witness Zhangazha said: "A contract exists between Zimura and ZBC that states that 10 percent of net advertising revenue generated by ZBC should be paid as royalties to musicians. The understanding is that advertisers target a pool of listeners and viewers that tune in to ZBC to listen to musicians' products."
The non-profit organisation, made up mostly of 2200 musicians, is incensed because ZBC is not treating the issue with urgency. Zimura also says the 2011 amount is still unknown because ZBC stopped supplying schedules of advertising revenue a long time ago.
ZBC seems to be dependent on licensing fees from its listeners and television viewers as the number of advertisers seems to have declined over the years. Most Zimbabweans now seem to subscribe to DStv and free- to-air channels. It looks like the situation is desperate. ZBC has even started advertising one of its radio stations, Power FM, on television to attract listeners.
The prevalence of the free-to-air satellite channel decoders such as the Wiztech, Fortec Star and Philibao which allow Zimbabweans to view SABC channels and Botswana TV, let alone DStv channels has taken listenership away from ZBC and has also made several people resist the payment of ZBC licences, a situation which has affected ZBC's finances.
ZBC's two television channels and four radio stations cannot satisfy the diverse tastes of 12 million people (Guess work as the ZimStat's census figures are not out yet). The majority of the people I spoke to say that they find ZBC channels boring.
The free-to-air satellite decoders have certain advantages. Viewers are not confined to one channel only. For instance, a viewer could choose to watch a sports channel, a gospel music channel or a news channel throughout the entire evening. Radio and television should be in a position to provide variety entertainment and be able to discuss topics such as politics, Aids, sociology, psychology and any other views without the announcer watching his/her back all the time for fear of losing his or her job.
In the Supreme Court there is the case of a businessman, Bernard Wekare, charged with failing to pay for a broadcasting listener's licence. Wekare has argued that compelling people who do not listen or watch ZBC programmes to subscribe was an infringement of their constitutional rights.
He also argues that Channel 138 on DStv allows him to watch ZBC, but he does not bother, so why should he pay twice for the same service? ZBC, according to Wekare, should collect its feed from DStv instead of forcing the nation to pay for a service which they do not watch.
He is being accused of contravening Section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act, Chapter 12:06, alternatively Section 38 D (4) (b) as read with Section 38 D (2) of the same Act. Harare magistrate Mr Don Ndirowei granted the man's application seeking referral of the matter to the highest court in the land to determine whether Wekare's right had been infringed upon.
Through his lawyer, Ms Beatrice Mtetwa, Wekare argued that his rights were being violated in terms of the Constitution of Zimbabwe by being "forced" to pay for the listeners and viewer's licence.
He further argued that it was a clear violation of his right to contract freely without legislative compulsion as the forced payment of a licence for services he does not want constitutes an interference with his right to enter into contracts freely.
Accessing television and other broadcast programmes, he argued, should not be compulsory as much as it is not compulsory to buy a newspaper. He added that a television set has ceased to be the only provider of broadcasting services with the introduction of other gadgets such as computers and cellphones.
It looks like ZBC is in trouble, but we will wait and see the outcome of both the Zimura case and the Wekare case.