Johannesburg - The Zimbabwean government's continuing stranglehold on community radio in the country is stifling media expression, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.
"Despite promises and laws enacted more than 14 years ago to free up the airwaves for much needed community radio services, the government of Zimbabwe has failed to deliver on its promises and commitments,” the human rights organisation’s director for Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena, said in a statement.
"Not only have the government supporters been the only ones to receive licences, but those attempting to set up independent services have been arrested and targeted simply for trying to educate, inform and offer a platform for debate. This is a violation of freedom of expression."
Zimbabwe's government had embarked on an "insidious two-pronged attack" to block independent community radio by refusing to issue licences and by harassing and intimidating those wishing to provide services.
Muchena’s comments accompany an Amesty International report released on Wednesday entitled "Beyond Tokenism - The Need to License Community Radio in Zimbabwe".
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According to the report, the Zimbabwean government had not issued a licence to a single community radio station since 2001, despite passing the Broadcasting Services Act that year. At least 28 community radio initiatives were waiting to be licensed.
"Restrictions to the right to freedom of expression and right to information for this target group are occurring in an environment where human rights defenders, government critics and the political opposition activists are also not freely enjoying their civil and political rights," the report reads.
"Human rights are being restricted through discriminatory practices, arbitrary application of the law and, in some instances, blatant violence is used with almost absolute impunity."
Opening up the airwaves and establishing independent community radio stations could have a positive impact on people's lives, especially in low-income urban and rural areas traditionally marginalised by mainstream media.
"Zimbabwe has an obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfil the right to the freedom of expression of everyone in the country, especially those who are marginalised by mainstream media and those whose voices are drowned out in national and local debates," the report said.
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The report’s recommendations include repealing or amending sections of the Public Order and Security Act and other laws that restrict the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association, and freeing the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) from political interference.
It was further recommended that the BAZ adopt an open-ended mechanism of licensing community broadcasting services by accepting applications any time of the year, and that it reduce its licence fees.
“Community radio can provide the life-blood of informed debate for rural and urban communities on matters of public interest and issues that directly affect them on a daily basis, be they social, economic or cultural," Muchena said.