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Independent Zimbabwean radio station SWRA: ‘We want to broadcast a little hope’

We just need old media. We just need radio. We just need people to be allowed to listen to radio,” explains Gerry Jackson, the founder of Zimbabwean radio station SW Radio Africa (SWRA).

The western media’s ongoing debate about the future of journalism and online media is amusing in comparison, says Jackson, who set up the station in the UK after being forced into hiding in Zimbabwe.

After being granted the right to open Zimbabwe’s first independent radio station in 2000, Jackson was forced to shut it down after just six days of test broadcasts. Undeterred, she moved to the UK to launch the station in December 2001 and now broadcasts a daily evening schedule, which are also available as podcasts.

Repeated attempts by the Zimbabwean government to jam the station’s signal have recently stopped, she tells Journalism.co.uk, which is just as well as the station doesn’t have the funding available to get around it.

“We’re still being heard. We’re clearly getting up their noses quite a lot at the moment. Even they realise that it would look really bad in terms of the unity government, but there is still a simplistic view that the opposition can shut us down,” says Jackson.

Within Zimbabwe independent media is a foreign, if not unheard, idea. There are laws in place that won’t allow it, says Jackson, explaining that recent television phone-in programme was banned after achieving a media first for the country when it featured Movement for Democratic Change [MDC, the former opposition party] and Zanu PF politicians in the same broadcast.

“They don’t want people talking freely, they don’t want openness. They get very cross with us. “They [Zanu PF] have always referred to us as a pirate radio station. My next line item in the budget is parrots, wooden legs and eye patches,” she jokes.

“There’s no understanding of the free media – and that’s been one of our hardest tasks – there never has been a Zimbabwean independent radio station. People don’t really understand the concept and although we’ve been broadcasting for nearly eight years it’s still only now beginning to sink in.”

Regime change
On September 15 last year Zimbabwe introduced a unity government, a powershare between long-standing ruling party Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

But a year on from the agreement, the new government has failed to improve media regulation and press freedom in the country and instead creates a more complicated situation for journalists, says Jackson.

“It’s a confusing story and there’s no consensus of opinion [on the unity government] so it’s a complex story for the journalists to look at and report on,” she says.

“Opinion is very polarised: you’ve got those that look at it and think it’s a unity government so we must all be behind it whatever; and those that say it’s a joke. There’s no clarity on any of the stories anymore.”

Donor organisations that previously helped fund media and development projects in the country face similar confusion and are asking if more change is to come or if funds should be withdrawn from previous projects because of the new ruling arrangement, she adds.

Journalists reporting on the unity government from Zimbabwe are faced with a tough challenge of defining what they are reporting on, says Jackson.

“The problem now is you have got an opposition in bed with a violent ruling party and often they need to be more careful about what they say,” she explains.

“But what are they [the opposition]? They’re slagged off in the leading newspaper, they’ve got no real power and haven’t been able to do anything effective.”

There is a responsibility for Zimbabwean media such as SWRA to encourage debate of the country’s issues and guide citizens, she says: “A Zimbabwean radio station is not like the BBC that has to be very balanced. You have to be all things to all people and you have to guide people wisely as well, because there isn’t much option or choice for people.

“It’s no good just putting stuff out there – it has to be a little more opinionated than normal. But it’s a fine line of how opinionated to go, and what is right and what is wrong.”

Negative news
Not all of SWRA’s audience agrees with the station’s independent coverage of the country, says Jackson, recalling some recent hatemail from UK-based listeners.

Since the introduction of a unity government, news reports that are seen as negative are rejected by many Zimbabweans – particularly those that have left the country, says Jackson.

“Some people when they leave they switch off, they get locked into their lives here and they really don’t want to know. The stories from Zimbabwe are often negative and I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘don’t tell me, I don’t want to know,'” she says.

“People have to wake up and they have to look at it; they have to face it and they have to deal with it. It’s no good saying, ‘let’s not talk about that because it’s a bit depressing’ – yes it is, but you’ve got to know about it before it can change.”

As a result of the state of media in the country, many Zimbabweans have never been exposed to constructive criticism and constructive opposition and debate about the country, she adds.

With more citizens now in experiencing life in democratic countries for the first time, this discussion is slowly starting to emerge outside of Zimbabwe – in particular through online forums.

The future of Zimbabwean media

Yet while new media is very popular in the diaspora – and SWRA is hoping to improve its online and social media presence with some help from the Guardian’s technology team – Zimbabweans have limited need and access for online news and communication methods.

“Shortwave and text messages are only real way to get into Zimbabwe. We could really only use social networking sites to raise awareness in the diaspora. Because our focus is on serving people in the country,” explains Jackson.

SMS messaging has had a significant impact on the station’s reach – since its launch in 2005, SWRA now sends out mobile news alerts three times a week to more than 30,000 numbers.

The station knows its own and its listeners’ limitations: sending out half a million messages a month is costly, so SWRA is reliant on individuals passing the texts along; but mobile remains a good route into the country, as broadband is limited and many Zimbabweans who leave the country give a phone to the family they leave behind.

While mobile can help reach and online media help raise awareness, content and information through old media channels is what SWRA and Zimbabwe’s people really need, says Jackson.

“It would just be good to see a half decent public broadcaster in place, a community radio station and maybe a couple of commercial radio stations. I don’t know if those could be supported,” she says.

“Community radio is really what Zimbabwe needs. You have trashed rural areas each with their own specific problems. A good community station would be of huge benefit.”

Although Jackson foresees that media regulations might change and allow a more independent news industry at some point, she fears that these would not be stable enough to sustain long-term press freedom.

The country would also need more journalists trained in broadcasting if restrictions were lifted, she adds.

For now, however, SWRA’s team of eight can’t consider returning home: “There has recently been a meeting of expelled editors in Harare – one editor was approaching the minister of information to get assurances that we wouldn’t all be arrested [on return to Zimbabwe], and so far he’s failing.”

Jackson is not waiting for change to regulations in Zimbabwe; the confusion brought by the recent regime change perhaps further strengthens this resolve. She is instead frank and realistic about what SWRA needs: funding and raised awareness.

“There is going to be no quick media fix in Zimbabwe. But what you want to do is broadcast a little hope.”(from http://www.journalism.co.uk/5/articles/535830.php)


(via Arnaldo Slaen)

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