Lack of information persists for rural communities

MUTARE, ZIMBABWE – Minutes before 7 p.m. on a cold September evening, Violet Chisango is fumbling around with the little solar-powered radio she bought 15 years ago. After checking that the battery is full, it plugs into “Studio 7” from Voice of America.

She waited all day for local news on this pirate radio station, which was broadcast 13,000 kilometers (about 8,000 miles) to her home in Masvingo province, south-eastern Zimbabwe, via an over-the-air frequency. short from the United States.

“Studio 7 is reliable,” she says. “This is where I got information on the issues with the coronavirus. “

Without her trusty radio, she would not have learned that vaccines had become available – and was vaccinated last summer. These evening broadcasts, on the only signal strong enough to reach her home, also keep her family informed of school closings and cyclone warnings; she also shares everything she hears with her neighbors.

Chisango is one of millions of Zimbabweans with limited access to information due to tight government control over broadcasting licenses, inadequate communications and electricity infrastructure, and the high cost of amplifying the few signals. existing remote. This lack of information may be life-threatening for rural communities – home to two-thirds of the country’s 15 million people – left in the dark about COVID-19 and the spread of the new variant of omicron, natural disasters and other threats.

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Satellite dishes adorn nearly every rooftop in Mutare, ensuring that households can receive a range of local, regional and global information and entertainment. This technology is out of reach in rural areas.

In Chimanimani, a village in eastern Zimbabwe, Moses Muyambo missed the dissemination alerts of Cyclone Idai in March 2019 and seriously injured his legs when floodwaters swept him away. Determined to keep residents safe in the future, community leaders worked on plans for a local radio station, which was licensed earlier this year, said Panganai Chirongera, a city councilor.

In cities, Zimbabweans with disposable income and stable electricity can get information from a range of national television and radio stations, satellite channels and internet services. Satellite technology costs around 9,200 Zimbabwe dollars (ZWL) ($ 100) for a household, with monthly subscription fees starting at ZWL 644 ($ 7). The average urban household earns around ZWL 15,805 ($ 172) per month, according to a December 2020 report from the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee. In contrast, a committee survey in April 2020 indicated that the average rural household earns only ZWL 3,036 ($ 33) per month.

Access to information is a human right, which has been denied to the majority of the country, said Noveti Muponora, lawmaker of Mount Darwin North, a district 160 kilometers (99 miles) northeast of Harare.

“In my area, they turn to Mozambican radio stations or pirate radio stations,” he says, adding that he has continually appealed to the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, which oversees the country’s airwaves, for the installation of boosters so that the inhabitants of Mount Darwin can receive TV and radio signals.

After maintaining tight control over broadcast and television rights since independence in 1980, the government of Zimbabwe began to respond to the growing wave of local and global voices arguing for more accessible and affordable sources of information.

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The digital terrestrial television project (known as ZimDigital), which aims to improve Zimbabwe’s broadcast schedule, is 40% complete with 18 of 48 television transmitters updated and five of 25 radio transmitters installed, according to a May report compiled by the government and the United Nations. . The project started in 2015, based on recommendations from the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency specializing in information technology, and was allocated ZWL 684.7 million (7.6 million dollars) for completion this year.

While acknowledging that the project has taken longer than expected, the Acting Director General of the Broadcasting Authority, Matthias Chakanyuka, expresses his confidence that the results will significantly improve access to information for rural Zimbabweans.

“The poor reception from the old equipment is currently being addressed by the digitization project,” he wrote in an email. “However, the full changeover is a gradual process. Some areas that did not have television and radio reception benefited from the digitization project. The government has made huge strides in providing funds for the completion of the digitization project.

Even if the broadcast signals could reach every household, however, not all Zimbabweans would be able to listen. Less than half of those surveyed in a 2019 household survey conducted by UNICEF and the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency reported having a television or radio in their home; less than a third reported having internet access on any device.

The cost and scrutiny required for a broadcasting license also deters potential sources of information. The broadcasting authority’s application fee for a 10-year license for a national radio or television station is $ 2,500, followed by a public inquiry fee of $ 7,500; the annual renewal fees cost $ 15,000 for radio and $ 18,000 for television stations, respectively.

“Diversity is needed, especially during the global coronavirus pandemic, where communities need to access information in a way they can understand,” says Patience Zirima, director of Media Monitors, an organization that identifies and analyzes editorial and advertising trends.

“Diversity is needed, especially during the global coronavirus pandemic, where communities need to access information in ways they can understand. “ director of media monitors

In Zimbabwe, the government exercises disproportionate control over broadcasting licenses and station management, according to the 2021 Media Law Handbook for Southern Africa, published by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German policy research foundation. “International best practice requires an independent regulatory authority to license broadcasting services and associated frequencies,” the report said, noting that Zimbabwe is among countries that have laws “establishing a public or national broadcaster, but those – These do not function as public broadcasters because the boards of directors are all appointed by the members of the executive.

Critics like John Masuku, executive director of pirate station Radio VOP based in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, lament that licenses are being granted more quickly to candidates with political ties and that rural communities remain underserved.

Yet they agree that the information gap has narrowed over the past decade. Prior to 2012, Zimbabwe had only one licensed television station and four radio stations, all operated by the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. Today the country has seven licensed television stations and 36 radio stations, including six campus radio stations.

After two refusals, Masuku says Radio VOP has chosen to focus on using internet platforms, such as podcasts and social media, but he applauds the ongoing advocacy efforts of other stations and community leaders to expand the public airwaves.

“It took ages,” he says. “But we are happy that this has happened.”

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