27 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Short Wave Radio Ban Triggers Uproar

SHORTwave radio was for grannies when most of us were growing up. Sitting under the tree, lonely, with the kids playing far away, my grandfather always had this fascination with his shortwave radio: it was a way of keeping up to date with the latest news, and with the cold war still on, radio Moscow had an ominous presence on short- wave, and BBC World Service also carried its loud voice across the globe using this channel.

ZANU-PF also blasted its news from Mozambique - it was propaganda war on the shortwave!

But those who thought shortwave radio had passed its prime and was on the deathbed, hold on a bit.

In Zimbabwe, it had become fun and shortwave radio had turned out to be a gadget to own, thanks to donors who had been distributing these radios to rural communities, most of which have not been receiving the national broadcaster's signal for years.

Until police recently declared that it was criminal to own these devices.

"We have information that some people or political parties are engaging in illegal activities....distributing illegal communication devices to unsuspecting members of the public...taking advantage of the needy communities and in guise of helping them they are also handing them over these communication devices," said police spokesperson assistant commissioner Charity Charamba.

So, just as it was during Zimbabwe's liberation war in the 1970s, Charamba suggests, so it is today with shortwave radios -- propaganda tools meant to undermine President Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF party.

Charamba said the radios were being distributed by people bent on sowing "seeds of disharmony within the country especially now that the country is about to embark on the referendum and harmonised elections".

"The possession and distribution of such devices is illegal. The distributors and recipients stand warned that ZRP (the Zimbabwe Republic Police) will not tolerate any such chicanery," she said.

Charamba's statement at a press briefing came long after police had embarked on a clampdown against owners of shortwave radios across the country.

The development has courted the ire of human rights activists who say the police action is "an unwarranted assault on freedom of expression and access to information by purporting to ban citizens from possessing and distributing radios and similar communication devices".

"In terms of Section 20 (i) of the Constitution every Zimbabwean is entitled to receive and impart information without any hindrance and the use of common technology such as radio, television or mobile phone is protected by law," said the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) in its attack on the police action.

ZLHR said the police utterances were "patently illegal" and that confiscation of shortwave radios had "no basis in law".

"The lengths to which State institutions and actors are now going to deny fundamental rights and freedoms and act outside the law is alarming but is typical of paranoid State authorities who are contemptuous of any diversity of opinion and information," said the ZLHR.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Zimbabwe) said the police were breaking the law as Zimbabwe did not have regulations banning hand-cranked, solar powered radios that democracy and election support groups plan to use ahead of a referendum on a new constitution next month and crucial elections later this year.

"Police insist the radios and cheap Chinese 3G smartphones with GPS capability are being supplied by subversive organisations and pose a security threat surrounding the polling. The importance of a radio set cannot be overemphasised as it is a generally affordable legal gadget used for receiving information by the public," said MISA-Zimbabwe.

He said the police action infringed citizens' constitutional rights to freedom of expression and basic civil liberties.

Police have recently raided offices of the Zimbabwe Peace Project as well as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) to confiscate these radio gadgets. ZESN has denied that it was in possession of such material at its offices.

The Eton Microlink radios being distributed by non-governmental organisations are able to receive Voice of America's Studio 7 broadcasts beamed in from neighbouring Botswana and shortwave broadcasts on Zimbabwe from Europe by several Zimbabwe-focused radio stations.

President Mugabe's ZANU-PF has described these radios stations as "pirate stations", alleging they were being sponsored by those seeking regime change in Zimbabwe.

Indeed the radios have given millions of Zimbabweans access to these stations, and critics argue that most people in rural communities do not have access to the State-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC)'s radio signals, depriving them of their right to information.

ZBC has four radio stations and these are said by activists to be "fiercely loyal to President Mugabe".

The former opposition Movement for Democratic Change parties, now in an inclusive government with President Mugabe's ZANU-PF, have alleged that they have been negatively portrayed by ZBC radio stations and television channels which have reported favourably on President Mugabe and his party.

The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), a conglomeration of press freedom advocates, said it was equally disturbed by the police action.

"Radio has the widest geographical reach and the largest audience of all mass media in Zimbabwe because of its affordability therefore making it the most important source of information for most people, especially in the rural areas," said MAZ.

It added: "The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe is concerned that confiscating these radios and declaring them illegal would deprive people of an important means of accessing information at this critical period when national processes of constitution-making, the referendum and elections are taking place."

A shortwave radio is a specially designed receiver that receives shortwave radio stations from distant countries.

Shortwave broadcast stations broadcast in English at certain times, usually in the evenings. These stations also broadcast to foreign countries in the language of the people in the foreign countries.

While indeed these stations have been aligned to so-called pro-democracy groups and parties in Zimbabwe, they contend that this has been largely because ZANU- PF has denied the opposition and other political players space on the country's public broadcaster.

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