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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 15:07 GMT
Giving voice to freedom
Gerry Jackson over protesting Zimbabwean journalists
A radio station has started broadcasting to Zimbabwe from London to get around Robert Mugabe's media crackdown. In our weekly Real Time series, "exiled" producer Gerry Jackson tells why she fled to set up the independent station.

Not only are you not allowed to have independent radio in Zimbabwe - I'd tried with Capital Radio in 2000 and got shut down after six days - it's also difficult to do it regionally as neighbouring countries don't want to get involved at this level.

SW Radio Africa
Began on 19 Dec
Three hours of news, features and music each night
Broadcasts on 6145 kHz on 49m band in Shona, Ndebele and English
We chose the UK because it's English-speaking; there's half a million Zimbabwean exiles here so we can get them into the studio; and Zimbabwean politicians often come through.

I'm not comfortable with words like 'secret radio station' and 'exiles' because I don't believe we're doing anything that shouldn't be on air.

But we don't advertise our street address because it's foolish to just say, 'Here we are, come and get us'. There are CIO operatives [secret police] in the UK. Maybe they wouldn't do anything...

President Mugabe wants journalists to register annually
Journalists protest against moves for more state control
For some reason, I didn't fear for my personal safety in Zimbabwe although I did have friends who no longer went out after dark because of the huge increase in crime and carjackings.

I did live a more alert life. There's that lovely quote, 'I'm not tense, I'm very, very alert' - it was a bit like that. I didn't worry about my personal safety on a minute by minute basis, but if somebody decided to target me, that was the threat.

Let the people speak

Up until the mid-1990s, Zimbabwe was doing very nicely. Tourism was huge, farming and tobacco crops were magnificent. But in 1997 came the big crash - it was purely self-inflicted. The dollar crashed and inflation started to bite.

Protest in 2000 over transport costs
Demonstrations against price hikes have continued
At the time, I worked for [the state broadcaster] as a freelancer on the pop channel. It was always very clear that there were certain issues which were not open for discussion - a hangover from Rhodesian days.

One morning, there was a demonstration against rising prices and the police reacted violently. The station was inundated with calls, and eventually I opened the phone lines to allow people to talk. Many condemned the police violence.

The station management phoned me several times to tell me to stop. Fifteen minutes before I was due to come off air, the head of the station came down and escorted me from the studio.

Radio station raided

After they fired me, I fought a long court battle to win the right to set up an independent radio station, which I won in 2000.

The scene at the Harare-based Daily News
An independent paper was bombed in 2001
The information minister had made it clear that the government would bring in regulations to override this ruling. My lawyers told me to set up a station immediately because it would be easier to fight if the station was a reality.

That gave me four working days. I had no equipment and no people as staff were very reluctant to join. I located a transmitter and started broadcasting a music signal from a hotel room, just to get on air. Such was the need that people were ringing up saying, 'I love your station'.

Six days down the line, armed police shut us down. One hour before the raid, Mugabe had used his presidential powers to make it once again illegal to own a transmitter.

Providing balance

We'd like to do research on our listenership, but with the violence there a researcher would just get beaten to a pulp.

With elections around the corner, all we are crying for is information - God bless you

Listener's comment on station website
Based on the e-mails and phone calls we get, we seem to be widely listened to and across the board - age groups, colours, urban and rural.

In many rural areas, we're the only source of non-state controlled news. Not only is it hard to get papers out to the rural areas, the vendors of independent newspapers have been beaten up and harassed.

Zimbabweans are feeling very isolated now and very disheartened with the international community.

For two - almost three years - we've been listening to the EU and the Commonwealth saying they're cross with the Mugabe regime. Many just think, 'So what? You're cross - my brother's been killed, my cousin's been tortured.'

Real Time gives people a chance to tell their own stories in their own words. If you've got something to say, click here.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Africa
20 Dec 01 | Africa
10 Oct 00 | Africa
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