Why are Zimbabwe police seizing radios?

People listening to a radio in Zimbabwe

Wind-up, solar-powered radios might seem like an excellent idea to help cash-strapped Zimbabwean villagers pass the long, dark evenings.

But the authorities seem to disagree and have confiscated hundreds of sets in recent months.

Villagers in in the east of the country were terrified one night during a police raid in a door-to-door search for radios.

"By close to midnight, they had taken about 30 radios from people," said Clara Kadzviti, who lives in the village in rural Chinamora district, about 50km (30 miles) east of the capital, Harare.

Start Quote

These radios are used to propel propaganda in the rural areas”

End Quote Charity Charamba Police spokesperson

She and two other villagers were made to identify their neighbours who had radios, capable of picking up FM, AM and shortwave signals, which had recently been handed out by a small non-government youth organisation that had been in the area building a road and some community toilets.

"They took my cell phones and demanded to know the identity of people in my phone," she said, explaining how bedrooms and kitchens were thoroughly inspected.

"A lot of people were taken to the police station and we were warned that those that would be found with the radios [in future] will disappear."

The confiscations have left some people fearing that in the run-up to elections, the free media guarantees in the newly approved constitution will not be respected.

But the police force has said the radios are being used to spread "hate speech", brought into the country by unregistered groups ahead of the polls expected in July after four years of power-sharing between President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and the Movement for Democratic Change.

"We have evidence that they have been smuggled in from some of the Western countries - and these radios are used to propel propaganda in the rural areas," police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said.

'Security threat'

Zimbabwe's state broadcaster, the ZBC, has a near monopoly over the airwaves - 16 months ago two broadcasting licences were granted to two commercial radio stations, one owned by the state-owned Herald newspaper and the other by a powerful businessman in Zanu-PF.

Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko arriving at a magistrate's court in Harare on 24 December 2008 Jestina Mukoko, who is being probed for illegally distributing radios, was tortured by police in 2008/9

The more than 10 community radio projects which have applied for permission to broadcast, along with other private radio and TV concerns, since the coalition government came to power four years ago are still waiting for their licences to be approved.

"It is very diabolic the taking of the radios, people are entitled to information about what is happening in the country… taking away these radios is to force them to listen to the ZBC, which they don't want to listen to," MDC spokesman Douglas Mwonzora told the BBC.

Ms Kadzviti, 25, agreed that people needed an "alternative source of news" to the state broadcaster, widely seen as a mouthpiece for Zanu-PF and President Mugabe.

"We are sick and tired of state propaganda on ZBC," she told the BBC.

Start Quote

A radio cannot be confiscated summarily even in the absence of a licence”

End Quote Irene Petras Lawyer

"They twist information, subtract some or add some information that could have never happened."

Popular evening news programmes in English, Shona and Ndebele are broadcast from the US by Voice of America's Studio 7 and in English by SW Radio, a private radio station run by Zimbabweans in the UK.

Both stations say their broadcasts on shortwave and medium wave have been jammed - although Zimbabwe's authorities have never confirmed this.

Appearing before a parliamentary committee, deputy police chief Innocent Matibiri described Studio 7 as a pirate station and the radio distributions as "an unusual act of generosity" by groups which pose "a serious threat to the security of the country".

In the past, Zanu-PF has accused the West of interfering in Zimbabwean affairs and plotting Mr Mugabe's downfall.

Earlier this month the respected director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, Jestina Mukoko, spent two days in police custody being questioned on allegations of illegally distributing radios and running an unregistered NGO.

This was followed a raid in the second city Bulawayo on the offices of Radio Dialogue, an unregistered community radio station which distributes its programmes by CD.

Two hundred shortwave radios were seized and Zenzo Ndebele, the station's editor, was arrested and charged with smuggling radios into the country.

A farmer in rural Zimbabwe - 15 March 2013 In rural areas of Zimbabwe, state radio is just about the only source of news

Ahead the recent referendum on a new constitution, President Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba told The Herald that foreign embassies with "sinister intentions" were suspected of complicity in this "smuggling" and were being investigated.

Radio dealers should ensure that people buying the radios had a listener licence, he added.

These licences cost $20 (£13) annually for those living in urban areas and $10 in rural areas - and cover radios and TVs.

'Political persecution'

Start Quote

Clara Kadzviti

Very few have access to radio and electricity here. This radio is my hope. I will cling on to it”

End Quote Clara Kadzviti, 25 Chinamora resident

But the timing of the civil group leaders' arrests, a few months before the general election, is worrying some, like Irene Petras, director for the Zimbabwe Human Lawyers for Human Rights.

"[It is] more of political persecution, than law enforcement," she told the BBC.

"Any person is entitled to own a radio as part of her/his fundamental right to receive information. Is it a crime to listen to radio programmes? No." she said.

"The law requires a listener to produce a licence, but a radio cannot be confiscated summarily even in the absence of a licence, as a person must be given time to pay on demand."

As well as guaranteeing rights to freedom of speech and a free media, it is also hoped the new constitution will help avoid a repeat of the violence that marred the 2008 polls.

Yet some human rights groups fear it will take more time to change Zimbabwe's culture of intimidation.

Come July, Mr Mugabe, who has been in power for 33 years and garners most of his support from those living in rural areas, will once again face Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Morgan Tsvangirai (L) and Robert Mugabe (R) in January 2013 Morgan Tsvangirai (L) and Robert Mugabe have been in a coalition government after disputed polls in 2008

Amnesty International's Noel Kututwa has warned that the government is "attempting to stifle freedom of expression and alternative access to information" with its crackdown on radios.

Ms Charamba has said as elections approach it is not just radios that are the focus of police investigations, but other equipment distributed by NGOs like mobile phones.

"On these cell phones you can even put memory sticks to download information - to download pictures - and some of the gadgets, even like ball points [pens], which are being used to record people," the police spokeswoman said.

For Ms Kadzviti the confiscations have only made her more defiant - and she since obtained a new radio set to replace the one which was confiscated.

"Very few have access to radio and electricity here. This radio is my hope. I will cling on to it," she said.

"All I need to do is leave it outside for a while, it's solar powered. I can listen all night to news."

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