Postscript to report on censorship in Zimbabwe

5 January 2005
Added to Freemuse Report no 3, “Playing with Fire: Fear and Self-Censorship in Zimbabwean Music”. Second edition, 2005

By Banning Eyre

In retrospect, my research trip to Zimbabwe in March, 2001, came at a watershed moment in the country’s cultural history.  It is now clear that an extensive, uncompromising government campaign of artistic censorship and propaganda was just getting underway that spring.  A world in which musicians and other artists were more or less free to speak their minds—albeit with some negative consequences—was about to be swept away.  Many of my 2001 informants argued that no songs had actually been banned from state radio, that artists were not afraid to speak their minds openly, and that criticism of the powerful was in fact a vital part of Zimbabwean culture, as long as it was done in an appropriately dignified way.  Almost four years later, no honest observer could make such claims.  Not only have Zimbabwean voices of criticism—whether musicians, playwrights, poets, or journalists—been almost completely silenced, they have been replaced by a host of state-sponsored shills, all carefully stage managed by a Minister of Information who personally composes propaganda songs and produces albums that state radio—still the only legal radio—is then compelled to broadcast.  An environment of fear and self-censorship has morphed into one of outright censorship and corrupted cultural institutions that seek to distort the very essence of the artistic impulse.  Even under the best imaginable scenario, it may take generations to heal the wounds Zimbabwe’s cultural meddlers have now inflicted on their society.

In the summer of 2001, Zimbabwe’s long-awaited broadcasting reform act was passed, posing formidable obstacles to private broadcasters and imposing a 75% local content requirement on all broadcasters.  The DJ’s I interviewed earlier that year knew that this requirement was looming, and they tended to see it as a misguided effort to support local musicians.  What they did not see was that Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo intended to personally shape that “local content,” pressuring recording studios to refuse artists who wished to record protest music, bribing musicians—including prominent ones—to record pro-government propaganda songs, writing and producing his own songs in support of the government and its policies, and creating explicit black lists of songs that could not be broadcast on state airwaves.

When Thomas Mapfumo released his next album, Chimurenga Rebel (2002), Moyo reportedly branded him a “terrorist,” and instructed ZBC not to air a number of its songs.  Most of Mapfumo’s subsequent recordings have been deemed unfit for broadcast, badly damaging the artist’s ability to maintain his audience and earn income from his work.  In 2004, Mapfumo had difficulty booking a studio to record a new album, and once he did, the master recordings mysteriously disappeared, not once but twice, making 2004 the first year in  his three-decade career when Mapfumo did not release a new studio recording in Zimbabwe.  Mapfumo is only the most prominent of the many artists whose voices have been squelched.  Younger singers daring to criticize the Mugabe regime, even indirectly, have faced difficulties getting their work recorded.  If they manage to produce finished work, they run into an absolute ban on broadcasting at ZBC.

Meanwhile, the government has filled the resulting void with what it deems more appropriate fare.  In March 2001, the popular singer Andy Brown spoke bravely to me about his run-ins with censors at the state radio station.  But just a few months later, he had been bought off and was releasing songs in praise of the government’s controversial farm-seizure policy.  A number of other prominent singers were also corrupted by government bribery that  year, particularly after Moyo’s ministry began producing a set of radio and television jingles, part of an elaborate propaganda campaign called Chave Chimurenga (Now it’s War).

Maxwell Sibanda was a music writer for the independent newspaper the Daily News, a powerful alternative to the government media juggernaut until it was closed down in 2003.  Sibanda and his colleagues wrote about banned music, informing the paper’s urban readership of what was happening, even if they could not hear the music.  Sibanda also reported about public irritation over the relentless jingle campaign.  In a comprehensive article on Zimbabwe’s censorship of artists (published in September, 2004, and available at, Sibanda reported that just one of these noxious jingles was played 288 times a day between the four state radio stations, and 72 times on television.  There has been a debate about whether these jingles are propaganda or advertising, but in the absence of any countervailing voices in the media, the debate is ultimately irrelevant.  As Sibanda writes, “In rural Zimbabwe, where 70 percent of the people live and most depend on radio for news and entertainment, the propaganda music has become doctrine, affecting people’s lives and way of thinking.”

Among Zimbabwe’s disappearing cultural voices have been widely respected, veteran broadcasters, like Eric Knight who fled the country in 2003 after refusing to program propaganda songs, and Brenda Moyo who was fired that year after she aired two banned songs.  In my 2001 interviews, DJ’s spoke passionately about the need for DJs to play what the public wants to hear.  Since then, the government has made it clear that this criteria places a distant second to “political correctness.”  Just to be sure, the government has now raised the 75% local content requirement to 100%.  Songs by the likes of Bob Marley—who famously regaled a celebrating, new nation in Harare’s Rufaro Stadium in 1980—are no longer acceptable.  All of this sends a clear message to young musicians, who now understand that if they want to pursue a career in music, they must not stray from approved messages.

Banned songs are still heard on two shortwave radio stations, SW Radio Africa and Voice of the People—both broadcast from locations in Europe—as well as in private homes, minibuses and certain cultural venues.  In fact, some sectors of the public have resisted the effort to stamp out artistic freedom.  Artists on the government payroll have been physically attacked, and venues that once booked them readily, have refused to host their performances.   But the censors are constantly expanding their spheres of influence.  Unable to produce a new studio album, Thomas Mapfumo released a live recording called Chaputika in the fall of 2004.  It included a previously unreleased song called “Masoja Nemapurisa,” critical of the misbehavior of soldiers and police.  When the album went on sale, gangs of government loyalists raided flea markets confiscating and destroying the CDs, and the album producer’s father was attacked and his car burned in a Harare suburb.  This incident occurred in November, 2004, and soon afterwards, Mapfumo, still living with his family and core band members in the United States, decided not to return to Zimbabwe to play his traditional year-end concerts.  This is the first time Mapfumo has ever failed to perform for his fans over Christmas and New Year’s, yet another sign of Zimbabwe’s sadly deteriorating cultural climate.  2004 did end with one hopeful note.  Jonathan Moyo is being replaced as information minister.  His replacement can only be an improvement.

Banning Eyre

January 5, 2005

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