Harare will not permit foreigners to own broadcasting stations but will
before the end of the year invite locals to apply for broadcasting
licenses, writes Gugu Ziyaphapha.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu says: "On the issue of ownership we cannot compromise. Why should a foreigner want to own a voice in Zimbabwe? The government policy on broadcasting seeks to achieve strategic goals. We seek to expose those we perceive as adversaries and win over those we see as useful allies. Broadcasting seeks to build national cohesion, consensus and defence, especially this time when the country's sovereignty is being challenged by our erstwhile colonisers."

The government says it is also working on relaxing the stringent Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) which in the past has made it difficult for applicants.

Prospective broadcasters and the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) have attacked the 2003 broadcasting laws, saying they still protect the monopoly enjoyed by the state’s Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH).

They argue that blocking foreign investment in local media companies makes the growth of new players very difficult since the industry requires foreign currency which local firms lack. However, the government says it will not allow foreigners to own the media because they are hostile towards President Robert Mugabe’s administration.

Ndlovu told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport and Communications that his ministry is consulting with the office of the Attorney-General and other stakeholders about amending the BSA.

"According to the BAZ, the main reason why applicants fail is the requirement for them to declare their source of funds in view of the fact that the majority of shareholders should be Zimbabweans and this is also in line with the Indigenization and Empowerment Bill," said Ndlovu.

Zanu-PF MP, Leo Mugabe who chairs the committee said ZBH’s collection of the compulsory licence fees from the public could be legally challenged.

He said any other private company could go to court and successfully demand to be authorised to provide the same service as ZBH, which had become a private company by virtue of its registration under the Companies Act. Members of the public should not be made to fund a private company.

The committee said it would deal with the issue of licence collection at a later date.

Meanwhile, former lawyer for Mugabe and the government, Terrence Hussein has labelled presidential spokesman, George Charamba a liar.

Charamba, who also doubles as the Information Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, claimed in an affidavit that Hussein had helped craft the BSA and should, therefore, be barred from representing applicants who are challenging the constitutionality of some sections of the act. It represents a conflict of interest, Charamba argues.

But Hussein has dismissed the claims as false and gravely defamatory, and has demanded evidence of the claims.

The case which gave rise to the dispute sees Hussein representing Ndabenhle Mabhena and his company, Manala (Pvt) Ltd. They are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a section 38 of the BSA which says that all frequencies allocated by BAZ and Transmedia – the signal distributor – are exclusively for ZBH’s use.

ZBH owns the only two VHF (Very High Frequency) television channels.

Three other television channels are available on Ultra High Frequency (UHF), but using them would be very expensive as it would mean setting up a parallel UHF transmission system. They argue that the ZBH is using only one VHF channel, and they should be given the other one.

The government says the other VHF channel is reserved for National Television, which has been in preparation since 2004.

Hussein represented President Mugabe when his 2002 presidential election victory was challenged by the opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai who claimed the election was rigged.

The lawyer also represented a number of Zanu PF legislators whose victories were later challenged in the High Court by the MDC.