Radio seizures target rural Zimbabweans

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In Zimbabwe, reports are coming in indicating that police in Mashonaland East have been raiding homesteads and confiscating shortwave radio sets. Shortwave is the one way rural Zimbabweans get independent information, and a rise in radio seizures means elections are on the horizon, according to a Zimbabwean exile and founder of an independent radio station. 


"What's happening at the moment is that the ruling Zanu-PF party, though they are supposed to be maintaining a coalition government with the MDC, are maintaining an iron grip on power. They're in full election mode," says Gerry Jackson, the founder London-based SW Radio Africa, which is broadcast via shortwave to Zimbabwe.

"They are gearing up for an election any time, which Mugabe, the president, has said he would like to see happen before June next year. So confiscating the radios is just part of their normal electioneering," she adds. SW Radio Africa is founded by Zimbabweans for Zimbabweans.

Radios are distributed to villagers by non-governmental organisations so that they can have access to independent radio stations like SW Radio Africa other than state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

Okay Machisa, the executive director of ZimRights, a Harare-based human rights group with offices around the country, won't tell RFI the names of the groups distributing radios; he says he fears for their safety.

He also cannot say exactly which police have been harrassing people in the area, but reports indicate that police are threatening people, then coming into their homes to take the radio sets.

Shortwave radio is one way people living in rural areas, such as Chitowa village, can listen to independent, foreign radio, Jackson, the founder of SW Radio Africa, says Zanu PF is confiscating radios because listeners are exposed to free speech: "I think they are concerned because of our analysis and our news and information, and we help people understand what is going on, and we are exposing what's going on within the government."

SW radio broadcasts news but also has a callback feature so it can focus on issues people want to talk about, but she says that the same issues are still important. "It's kind of just locked into the same thing, because people's suffering has not changed year-to-year. It's hunger, starvation, and extreme violence."

Machisa says that this sort of atmosphere evokes colonial times as Rhodesia under colonial white minority ruler Ian Smith. "The era that we are in is just a s good as the era of Smith. Smith didn't want to open up airwaves, and didn't want to have alternative information given to the people in the communities," he says.

Movement for Democratic Change party spokesman Nelson Chamisa says that radio confiscations are sure to backfire on Zanu-PF. "We do acknowledge and appreciate the fact that Zanu-PF people are so scared of the people," he says. "And they are running scared particularly ahead of the election, because they know that people will never vote for them, they know that people will never support terror and a collapsing government."

Although Zanu-PF was unable to be contacted, police are reportedly saying that the radios were being confiscated because they were imported illegally and without approval of the police.

Reporters without Borders has announced that Zimbabwe had moved 13 places from last year's 136th position on the global media freedom index due to the opening of new private newspapers in the country. Zanu-PF, while agreeing to some reforms pushed by its coalition partner MDC, has maintained its grip in muzzling independent radio broadcasts.

Jackson of SW Radio says that the while the repressive media climate has always been there and their station had been jammed a few years ago, their radio has noticed recent changes, due in part to upcoming elections.

"A few days ago, the jamming started again, although it's now ceased and we believe it is again testing, ahead of elections, so that they know they are ready at any time to just block our broadcasts," she says.

Meawhile, Zimbabwe police have reportedly promised to investigate the illegal radio confiscations.  ZimRights' Machisa has called on those who have been harassed and hassled to report their radio confiscations as theft.

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