31 May 2019

Zimbabwe: Minister Mutsvangwa's Appearance Before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee

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On 30 May 2019, Minister of Information, Publicity, and Broadcasting Services Monica Mutsvangwa appeared before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Information, Media, and Broadcasting Services to give oral evidence on the country's media sector.

The first major issue raised by the portfolio committee was that of the issuing of broadcasting licences in the absence of a Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe's (BAZ) Board. Minister Mutsvanga conceded to the fact the BAZ is a statutory body tasked with the licensing of broadcasting services in Zimbabwe in terms of the Broadcasting Services Act. However, BAZ last had a properly constituted Board in 2015.

The committee therefore, submitted that broadcasting licenses issued after the dissolution of the last BAZ board were illegally issued with the Ministry of Information Publicity and Broadcasting Services overseeing this irregular process.

The minister responded by saying the licenses issued post 2015 did not require interventions of the BAZ Board or public enquiries. She did not provide any supporting legal provisions to substantiate her response but rather opted to say her submissions are informed by legal advice from the Attorney General's office.

In 2018, BAZ issued Video on Demand licences; these do not require the allocation of bandwidth spectrum. Econet, Alpha Media Holdings and PowerTel are some of the organisations that successfully applied for this type of licence.

However, the Broadcasting Services Act does not specify which types of licences may or may not be issued when a properly constituted BAZ Board is in place. This position must be clarified in future versions of this important piece of law.

In 2018, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation launched two regional commercial radio stations, namely Khulumani FM and Central Radio in Bulawayo and Gweru respectively. The minister did not address how or when the frequency spectrum for these two radio stations was allocated.

This is problematic because the allocation of frequency spectrum is the solely reserved for a properly constituted BAZ. This is in terms of section 3(2)(a) of the Broadcasting Services Act.

Government representatives have rightfully held that frequency spectrum is a finite resource. There must therefore, be transparency in how this national resource is allocated. If the ZBC is sitting on reserved frequency spectrum this must be disclosed to Parliament and members of the public.

MISA also noted government's intention to license more TV stations and community radio station once the BAZ board has been constituted regardless of whether the amended broadcasting law would have been passed or not.

This exposes the government's duplicity in preaching reforms on one hand while undermining this reform process by potentially willing to licence more entities using existing, contested pieces of legislation that are largely not in sync with the national Constitution.

The Broadcasting Services Act must be amended before a genuinely diverse and plural broadcasting environment can be realised in Zimbabwe. It is in bad faith for government to be working on a reform agenda and a parallel licencing agenda under old laws and regulatory frameworks at the same time.

The second issue raised by the portfolio committee focused on the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust (ZMMT). ZMMT was established through a $5 million donation on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe by the government of Nigeria.

Minister Mutsvangwa revealed that the Trust is operating under the direction of only one trustee. This is against acceptable governance standards to ensure an efficient running of the board of trustees as such a board of an entity of national interest must have people of diverse capabilities.

Government representatives have rightfully held that frequency spectrum is a finite resource. There must therefore, be transparency in how this national resource is allocated. If the ZBC is sitting on reserved frequency spectrum this must be disclosed to Parliament and members of the public.

MISA also noted government's intention to license more TV stations and community radio station once the BAZ board has been constituted regardless of whether the amended broadcasting law would have been passed or not.

This exposes the government's duplicity in preaching reforms on one hand while undermining this reform process by potentially willing to licence more entities using existing, contested pieces of legislation that are largely not in sync with the national Constitution.

The Broadcasting Services Act must be amended before a genuinely diverse and plural broadcasting environment can be realised in Zimbabwe. It is in bad faith for government to be working on a reform agenda and a parallel licencing agenda under old laws and regulatory frameworks at the same time.

The second issue raised by the portfolio committee focused on the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust (ZMMT). ZMMT was established through a $5 million donation on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe by the government of Nigeria.

Minister Mutsvangwa revealed that the Trust is operating under the direction of only one trustee. This is against acceptable governance standards to ensure an efficient running of the board of trustees as such a board of an entity of national interest must have people of diverse capabilities.

In 2015, the government through the Ministry of Information Media and Broadcasting Services assured the nation that the country had secured USD 200 million dollars for the process. However, in 2019, Minister Mutsvangwa noted that the government has only paid 39 million of the USD 178 million bill owed to the service provider, Huawei.

Appearing before the same committee on the 6th of December 2018, the Ministry's Permanent Secretary Nick Mangwana made submissions that the digitisation project needed direct funding of USD$100 million for its completion. He made this revelation when he submitted his ministry's budget estimates to the committee. However, in an article report carried by The Herald in 2016, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe chief executive Obert Muganyura indicated that government needed $29 million to complete the exercise. This means the amount needed for the completion of the digitisation project has inexplicably tripled from an estimated $29 million in 2016 to $100 million in 2018.

MISA Zimbabwe therefore, urges government to audit the funds that have already been allocated to the digitisation process. There has been little transparency and reporting on how those funds were utilised. This audit process should also incorporate a regional comparative study to determine how much other countries spent to complete their digital switch over exercises. This is necessary because digital migration will define and shape the future of the entire media and communications industry. The advancement of media plurality quiet literally hinges on the completion of the digitisation exercise.

Recommendations

MISA Zimbabwe urges the government to conclude the media reform process before it considers licencing other broadcasters in order to comply with constitutional requirements and avoid future contestation.

MISA further urges the government to ensure efficient operation of the ZMMT in order to address some of the nagging issues such as partisan reporting within public media. The Zimpapers, New Ziana and Kingstones companies are public assets which are supposed to be run by the ZMMT on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe.

Government must speed up the digitisation process in a transparent and efficient manner to ensure that other players can be licensed once the law amendment process is finalised.

Source: MISA Zimbabwe

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