Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
How a Bulawayo community station has been 'broadcasting' for ten years - without a licence
By Zenzele Ndebele, Radio Dialogue Production Manager
Radio Dialogue was founded back in 2001 with one central aim – to establish a community radio station in Bulawayo that would give its people a platform to tell their stories, celebrate their diversity and promote their development. Not a radical plan in most countries but Zimbabwe had never had an independent radio station.
At independence in 1980, ZANU-PF inherited the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation. The only major change that they sanctioned was to change it from RBC to ZBC – Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. It remained a state-owned radio, which was used to promote state and ZANU-PF propaganda.
On 22 September 2000, the situation changed for the better when the Supreme Court declared ZBC’s monopoly null and void – theoretically paving the way for other players to enter the radio market. However, the then Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo responded by saying the monopoly of ZBC would remain until the government put in place a regulatory framework because government did not want a "broadcasting jungle" and because there was a great need to "control broadcasting" since otherwise people would start airing "pornographic and beastly material”.
In the same year, the Broadcasting Services Act was enacted – making it almost impossible for independent and community radios to be granted licences. This is one of the reasons why Radio Dialogue still does not have a licence – ten years after its establishment!
Despite the consistent support of organisations such as OSISA, which has helped to fund our work since the start, it has not been easy for us to keep Radio Dialogue operating in Zimbabwe, where the government is well known for not respecting either human rights or media freedoms. So Radio Dialogue has had to be very innovative and creative in order to ‘broadcast’ without a broadcasting licence.
In 2001, Radio Dialogue started packaging radio programmes on tapes and CDs and distributing them to commuter buses. The CDs were called Topical Taxi Tunes and the programmes proved to be very popular with the community because they talked about issues that affected people in their daily lives.
But after a few months, we received a letter from the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe stating that what we were doing was broadcasting (although it was more like ‘road casting’) and therefore illegal. They advised us to apply for a licence. We knew they were not going give us a licence so we did not bother to apply.
However, we had to keep the project going so we searched until we found another loophole. The infamous Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) allows organisations to distribute media products to their members – so we had to find a way of making everyone in Bulawayo a member of Radio Dialogue. After a consultation meeting with the city council, we agreed to establish Radio Dialogue committees in all 29 wards in Bulawayo. This meant that technically everyone in Bulawayo was a member of Radio Dialogue and in no time, we were back in business.
Today, the ward committees play an important part in the activities of Radio Dialogue. Besides organising different events in their communities and advocating for a licence, the ward committees make up the general council, which is the radio’s highest policy-making body. This also makes Radio Dialogue a true community radio station, where the community has the chance to provide real input into the policies of the station.
Our main challenges since we started have been the actions of the state security organisations, who were originally very suspicious of us. A year after we launched, we were raided by officials from the police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, the Broadcasting Authority and the Immigration Service. And in the following years, many of our staff members have been taken in by the police for questioning about what Radio Dialogue is up to.
However, the more harassment we got, the more energy we had to keep going. The reaction of state agents became our monitoring tool and a sign that we were doing something that had impact.
Radio Dialogue has been involved in many other projects that have increased its visibility in the community – and the impact of its programmes. Some of these activities include roadshows when Radio Dialogue heads out into the community with a mobile truck loaded with a public address system and artists playing music and dancing. These roadshows highlight different themes, ranging from HIV/AIDS to better hygiene, from coping with water shortages to encouraging people to go and vote.
Radio Dialogue also works with youth in schools, who organise public debates, drama competitions and publish their own magazines.
New media has also created a lot of opportunities for Radio Dialogue. Not only have we managed to reach a wider audience, we have also been able to get a lot of feedback from the community. Indeed, we have often been the first to receive information on important events in our communities and have been the first station to air the stories – ahead of the public media.
The signing of the Global Political Agreement in 2008 not only improved the political situation, it also helped to stabilise the economic crisis. The introduction of the multi-currency regime saw a lot of prices going down and one of the sectors that benefited the most was the telecommunication industry. In 2008, a sim card from ECONET, one of Zimbabwe’s main mobile phone companies, was around US$100. Many people could not afford this kind of money. Even mobile handsets were very expensive. But today, an ECONET sim card costs just US$2 and the price of the handsets has dropped significantly. This means that there are now many more people who use mobile phones in Zimbabwe. Indeed, the state regulator, POTRAZ, announced earlier this year that there were about seven million registered mobile phone users in Zimbabwe. In a country where information is a scarce commodity such numbers are encouraging.
In 2009, Radio Dialogue took advantage of the growing mobile market by startin go use SMS to not only send news headlines to people but also to receive news ideas from the community. Within a short space of time there were over 1000 subscribers to this service – making our radio programmes far more interactive because people could SMS their feedback as well as telling us what was happening in their communities and what they would like to hear in the next edition of the programme. Despite not having a licence we are able to keep in touch with the community and interact.
Recently Radio Dialogue initiated a citizen journalism project. People from the communities are now being trained about how to send short and precise news stories to our office. They are also taught the basic elements of journalism – such as the what, where, when and why. There are now 46 of these trained citizen journalists around Bulawayo. Some of these people are even in rural areas, providing us with news and access we never had before.
And it is amazing how many stories they send – and how informative and important they are. Mostly they focus on health issues, the shortage of medication in hospitals, harassment by police and war veterans, the lack of teachers and other issues that really affect them. Radio Dialogue publishes these headlines on a blog – www.villagejournalistblogspot.com.
More and more members of the community are now involved in the production of news and telling their own stories. They no longer depend on ‘real’ journalists to tell their story. This is a remarkable change and can only bode well for the future – a future when the people of Bulawayo can really tell their stories to each other.ShareThis