Information Minister Mwansa Kapeya recently said GRZ is reviewing the media policy so that community radio stations can start benefitting from government grants to sustain their operations. Mr Kapeya says GRZ wants to assist community radio stations because many operate purely on volunteerism (Source : Times of Zambia).
Zambia has more than 70 radio stations, and rural radio stations are increasing. GRZ had set aside K8.3 million to install FM transmitters to enhance radio reception countrywide. So far, radio transmitters have been installed in Shangombo, Mulobezi, Chilubi Island, and Shiwang’andu. UNESCO has also provided some financial assistance to radio stations situated in far-flung areas. And theres a controversial possibility of utilising CDF funds as well.
The case for public financial support of independent local radio stations is generally very strong. Local radio helps to overcome three critical barriers that local people face : coordinating themselves for social good; lack of information; and "national language" requirements. No longer do people have to listen to "english powered stations", they can communicate to each other on radio in the language they actually understand.
Local radio can also help facilitate business activities in the local community. Advertising rates would be lower due to coverage enabling new small local businesses springing up to advertise their services and goods. It could also break the language barrier as locals would listen to the ads in their local language. In local radio is good for local business activities.
But funding these stations to unlock these wider benefits is difficult due to low advertising revenue. Hence the need for government financial support. The key is how such financial support is given. Empirical evidence appears to show that where government advertising dominates local radio station revenue streams this is likely to influence the content of radio stations perhaps further weakening the possibility of having programming that would hold government to account.
Increasing access to non-government revenue therefore might be one way to minimise government capture and ensure their editorial independence. This means that urban radio stations which are largely self funded are likely to be more independent than rural ones which may need government support. Crucially, it means that how GRZ sets up the financial support system is very important! It should leave no room for political capture.
Sadly we have seen significant interference by successive governments governments in operation of local radio stations. Currently Radio Mano is being threatened with closure. And there other radio stations that are a shadow of what they should be. It is therefore important that even as radio stations grow we keep our eye on how to ensure that such radio stations are independent of government and local people start using the information to hold government to account. More local radios, even financially sustainable ones, does not necessarily lead to more accountability.
Chola Mukanga | Economist
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