Zimbabwe: With a Radio Ban, Mugabe Sharpens the Old Enemy's Weapon

Harare — Even 33 years after Zimbabwean independence, President Mugabe remains a harsh critic of the white colonial government's system. But through the latest radio ban, he is imposing the same oppressive tactics that he himself once fought against to liberate his people.

As I write, Zimbabwe's statutes are still being starched with the state oppression that Mugabe himself once fought against. A case in point is the state's latest ban of small wind-up radios with a short-wave dial.

To understand better, let's first rewind a few decades...

Chiefs and Commandos

Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, gained independence in 1980 after a protracted guerrilla war. At its peak, in the 1970s, the two main fighting movements, ZIPRA and ZANLA, established exiled radio stations in Zambia, Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania, countries where their fighters received training. Via shortwave and medium-wave bands, these stations broadcasted into Zimbabwe. It was their way to communicate with the local villagers who supported the war by sharing intelligence and foodstuffs.

But in a bid to thwart enemy operations, Ian Smith, the last white Rhodesian ruler - whose 15-year reign, until 1979, witnessed the most severe and widespread abuses of native blacks - developed strategies that forced radios to be fitted with frequency modulation (FM), as opposed to short wave.

Manufactured by local Zimbabwean firms, such as Supersonic and WRS, Smith's FM radio sets were branded with the name 'Chief'. The name was apt since they were given to traditional Zimbabwean chiefs who lived in rural areas and who, Smith hoped, would sway their subjects to turn against the guerrillas (whom he referred to as 'terrorists').

Other radios were manufactured under the name 'Commando' and distributed to soldiers in the bush. The government's intention here was to keep spirits up. Those at battle were given radio programmes through which they could request favourite songs and relay messages about their welfare to loved ones.

Mugabe's heavy hand

In some ways, Smith triumphed. Thanks to its clearer signal and lively programming, FM listening became a pleasure. Everyday people could easily buy the receivers, which were readily available in most retail shops selling electronics. But, it should be noted, FM's transmission is restricted to a country's boundaries.

Both Smith and Mugabe claimed to be shielding people from pirate stations, which they claimed broadcast hate speech and lies about the country. In both eras, locals have been instilled with fear. They have had to resort to listening to exiled stations from under the blankets and in the granaries, all the while anxious that their neighbours might see them using forbidden radios.

But while Smith may have used more underhanded methods to ban short-wave radios, Mugabe has been heavy-handed. Even under Zimbabwe's stringent laws today, it is not a crime to own a radio receiver. But, by day, Mugabe's state agents confiscate the radios and harass citizens found in possession of them - a practice that gets revved up each time a Zimbabwean election looms. By night, the same agents return home to tune into exiled stations via the radios they've confiscated. In some instances, they distribute them among their relatives.

The state says it is grabbing the receivers from poor villagers because they are being brought into the country by NGOs without paying a customs fee. In some instances, the state is open enough to say it is trying to prevent ordinary citizens from accessing exiled Zimbabwean radio stations through the shortwave band, a unique feature in these radios.

In other ways, too, Mugabe has proven worse than his predecessor. He has made repeated attempts to scramble these stations' signals. He is also allegedly responsible for the 2002 bombing of exiled station Radio Voice of the People and the 2000 and 2001 bombings of the newspaper The Daily News, which is privately owned.

Today's listener

But Mugabe may be fighting a losing battle. Technological advancement is no longer so slow. Today's listener is not only more stubborn, but also more privileged to access - if not own - alternative media sources, like the internet and digital satellite TV.

Nowadays, most of the banned radio sets are imported from Asia and are being distributed to ordinary Zimbabweans by NGOs.

Radio is also accessible via cell phone and computer. Most Zimbabweans now own cheap Asian-import cars fitted with radios that can access VOA's Studio 7, Mugabe's most despised exiled station with coverage even wider than that of the FM state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation (ZBC).

Radio Voice of the People and Short Wave Radio Africa are two other exiled stations that attract a generous listenership.

And the stricter Mugabe gets about the ban's imposition, the more ravenous the appetite of Zimbabwean citizens grows. They want to hear precisely what the state broadcaster cannot - or will not - put to their domain.

The best of 2013 - 12

This is the 12th article in a series that features the best-read and most interesting articles of 2013. It was originally published on 2 April.

It’s what you might call one of history’s repeated ironies: liberators who turn into oppressors. You can ask around in many an African country what that’s like. For instance in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

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