Updated at: 07/19/2013 4:35 PM
By ANGUS SHAW
(AP) HARARE, Zimbabwe - Zimbabwe’s first independent television station went on air Friday to challenge the 30-year state broadcasting monopoly controlled by President Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe’s party said earlier Friday it will take all measures to "cripple" what it calls a pirate station.
The station, known as 1st TV, began broadcasting in the evening. It is a satellite feed from outside Zimbabwe using a free network received by an estimated 700,000 homes across the nation.
The state Herald newspaper reported that George Charamba, Mugabe’s spokesman, said South Africa will be asked to stop broadcasts believed to be beamed from there because they "hurt Zimbabwean interests" ahead of elections on July 31.
Mugabe’s state television has about 350,000 peak hour evening viewers. The new station hopes to attract 3 million viewers.
The regional free-to-air satellite platform known as Wiztech became available earlier this month after a South African court ordered that country’s state broadcaster to stop using it to transmit its programming at no cost because of infringements of copyright laws.
The latest independent Zimbabwe Advertising Products Survey said Wiztech satellite signal decoder receivers brought South African Broadcasting Corp. programs and regional gospel church broadcasts to up to five viewers in impoverished homes as Zimbabweans turned away from the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. programs seen as a key propaganda tool for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
Pay television satellite channels have about 40,000 subscribers in Zimbabwe. The free service has seen satellite dishes mushrooming on impoverished township roofs, hostels and shanty dwellings, some powered by car batteries, in the past five years as local terrestrial state TV deteriorated.
Ahead of the July 31 elections, state television and radio have been broadcasting ZANU-PF campaign rallies live, using new outside broadcast facilities provided by China. The television on Wednesday broadcast a Mugabe campaign rally live for nearly three hours.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader in a shaky coalition with Mugabe since the last violent and disputed elections in 2008, receives little coverage by the state broadcaster.
Charamba alleged Friday that 1st TV was being funded by Western nations out of South Africa and was being led by journalists backing Tsvangirai. But Andrew Chadwick, an executive producer at the station, told The Associated Press on Friday that Zimbabwean journalists outside the country saw an opportunity to provide independent and balanced news and discussion to Zimbabweans for the first time since independence in 1980, along with movies, soaps and entertainment.
"This is a new and entirely commercial and viable station. It is not a stand-alone one for elections. It is an alternative source of information and entertainment that until now have been completely controlled by Mugabe’s party," he said.
It was no surprise that any loss of that long-embedded and overwhelming broadcast domination infuriated Mugabe’s party, which the station has now asked to participate in political debates and buy advertising space, he said.
Charamba said Mugabe’s party in the coalition had demanded private radio stations allegedly favoring Tsvangirai that were broadcasting into Zimbabwe from outside the country be shut down under the power sharing agreement, but Tsvangirai’s party insists it has not been given equal access to the state media controlled by Mugabe that also had not stopped bitter "hate speech" directed at Mugabe’s opponents.
In previous elections, the state broadcaster was the main source of information for rural Zimbabweans in the population of about 13 million people. Mugabe persistently refused calls by regional mediators on Zimbabwe’s decade long political and economic crisis to open up the airwaves to independent broadcasters to end his party’s one-sided propaganda.
Chinese engineers have helped the state broadcaster jam some incoming independent radio programs.
Chadwick said 1st TV’s internationally licensed and recognized satellite signal beamed from an undisclosed location not inside South Africa cannot be jammed or shut down by advanced technical or electronic methods.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)