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MISA welcomes information minister's comments on ensuring greater access to information in marginalised areas

(MISA/IFEX) - 8 October 2010 - MISA-Zimbabwe welcomes calls by Information Minister Webster Shamu on the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) to licence more broadcasters to ensure access to information in marginalised parts of the country.

However, these calls should be accompanied by sincere and concerted efforts to reconstitute the regulatory board and the repeal of the repressive broadcasting laws.

The Herald of 7 October 2010 reported Shamu as having made this call while addressing participants at a BAZ strategic planning workshop in Harare on 6 October. While Shamu duly acknowledged government's failure to liberalise the airwaves since independence, his statements simply added more confusion on the legal status of BAZ as well as endorse the Broadcasting Services Act, the very same law that has hindered the proliferation of private broadcasting stations.

It is not clear which BAZ the minister was addressing given that the one his ministry unilaterally appointed on 30 September 2009 was contested and deemed as having been unprocedurally constituted, requiring a revisit and reconstitution of the entire process.

Principals in the coalition government are on record affirming this procedural anomaly. In fact, the reconstitution of the board is one of the 24 items out of the 27 points of dispute the coalition government had agreed to resolve within 30 days at the SADC summit held in August 2010.

Under the agreed implementation matrix of the resolved issues published by the Zimbabwe Independent, the Information Ministry, the Parliamentary Standing Rules and Orders Committee (SROC) and the principals were identified as responsible for that reconstitution. No progress has been made since then.

In terms of the law the president has the discretion to appoint nine nominees submitted by representative groups such as churches, legal practitioners and accountants following a call for nominations by the Minister. The president makes the other three appointments from a list of six nominees submitted by SROC.

Those legal procedures were not fulfilled, rendering the appointments made last year unlawful and the current board a legal nullity. The African Charter on broadcasting emphasises the need for transparency in the composition and appointment process of regulatory bodies such as BAZ. Again, this was not met as the appointments were shrouded in secrecy. Besides, it is MISA-Zimbabwe's view that any attempts to diversify the broadcasting sector has to be preceded by the repeal of the Broadcasting Services Act and its replacement with democratic legislation that is in line with regional and international instruments on broadcasting.

The existing law is replete with restrictive provisions that make it impossible for the easy entry of new, private players into the broadcasting sector as envisaged under the African Charter on Broadcasting. For example, according to the Act foreign ownership is at the discretion of the minister. The licensing fees, although marginally reduced in 2009, remain steep; programme content such as the mandatory cumulative one hour quota that each broadcaster is obliged to allocate to government is tantamount to interference in programming. Also in contention is that applications can only be made upon calls by BAZ given the regulatory board wide discretionary powers. It is these powers that have seen BAZ abdicating from calling for applications for community radio stations, which are recognized by the Act, since the enactment of the BSA in 2001.

The old BAZ itself is also on record acknowledging before parliament the restrictive provisions of the BSA since its enactment in 2001 as a major hindrance to the issuing of new licences to private players.

In March 2009 representatives of MISA-Zimbabwe met the Minister of Media, Information and Publicity and other senior ministry officials during which discussions focused on the state of the media and media reforms, among other issues. It was generally acknowledged that the restrictive provisions of the BSA hampered the entry of new private and commercial players into the broadcasting sector as well as establishment of community radio stations.

It is therefore MISA-Zimbabwe's strong view and recommendation that the BSA should be subjected to comprehensive reforms that meet internationally recognized and acceptable standards. The appointment procedure and composition of a body such as BAZ should be done in a transparent manner that involves input not only from elected representatives and the Executive, but should also include media organizations and broader civil society.

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