Police have announced a ban on 'specially designed radios' that are 'not compatible with state owned stations', claiming the devices would be used to communicate hate speech ahead of polls scheduled for this year.
In a move seen as an attempt to silence external radio stations, such as SW Radio Africa and VOA's Studio 7, broadcasting to Zimbabwe via shortwave and medium wave, police spokesperson Charity Charamba threatened to deal with organizations that helped to distribute portable radios, saying recipients would also be arrested.
She told journalists at a press conference in Harare on Tuesday: "We have information that some people or political parties are engaging in illegal activities, that is to say they are distributing illegal communicating devices to unsuspecting members of the public.
"We strongly believe that the intentions of such people are not holy but meant to create and sow seeds of disharmony within the country, especially now that the country is about to embark on the referendum and harmonised elections."
The shocking news comes as police upped their onslaught on civil society organization looking for subversive material, gadgets and recordings.
The state controlled Herald newspaper confirmed that hundreds of shortwave radios have so far been confiscated, especially in the rural areas.
Nelson Chamisa, the MDC Communications minister, told SW Radio Africa that it was an 'empty ban' saying: "It's laughable, ridiculous and misconceived. There is no way you can put effective ban on the hearing of people. You cannot put an effective ban on the ability of people to talk."
He said it is bizarre that it is being said by an institution that is supposed to observe the rule of law in the country. The minister said there is no government policy or any law that can be used by the police to enforce such a ban.
The minister said such a pronouncement is very worrying as the country moves forward with the hope of free and fair elections.
"It's a poisonous development that would make the plebiscite environment very un-conducive." Chamisa added.
ZANU PF's Media, Information and Publicity Minister Webster Shamu was unavailable for comment.
The ban on radios has been slammed by various nongovernmental organizations. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe) said there is no clarity on what exactly these 'communications devices' that were confiscated were, as well as the lack of clarity on what basis the radio sets or their distribution is also deemed illegal.
"A reading of Section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act states that one is not prohibited from possession of a receiver as long as it is in accordance with the terms and conditions of a listener's licence as issued by the ZBC.
"The importance of a radio set cannot be over-emphasised as it is a generally affordable gadget used for receiving information by the public. The right to receive and impart information and ideas is enshrined in Section 20 of the current constitution as a vital component of citizens' right to freedom of expression," read a statement by the media watchdog.
The Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (ZACRAS), an umbrella body of community radio initiatives in Zimbabwe, said: "The banning of radio sets to marginalised communities is not only undemocratic, but is a clear indication that the inclusive government has no intention to promote media freedom and access to information in this country. The main question we must ask is why our citizens are resorting to alternative means to access information and exercise their right to free expression?"
"The banning of solar powered radios and subsequent distribution to not only marginalised rural communities but also areas not receiving ZBC transmission, is a clear attitude of a government which does not embrace principles of democracy- participation, openness, transparency, accountability and development," ZACRAS chairperson Gift Mambipiri said.
Co-Home Affairs Minister Teresa Makoni revealed, through her Facebook page, that all radios that are receivers only, without ability to transmit, are perfectly legal and that there is no law at present which disallows anyone donating radios to the public.
However the minister said she held lengthy discussions with Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri, who said he is concerned that NGOs always intensify distribution just before elections.
Makone said: "I was very clear that airwaves are still restricted to other parties, that is why my party is distributing radios to our poor rural members...in the meantime he will have his engineers verify that the radios are simple receivers."
Observers say this response ignores the fact that there is likely to be massive intimidation as the average police officer will not know the difference between a receiver and two-way radio communicators.