- - Sunday, August 10, 2014

LONDON — A private radio station that was set up to break the monopoly of state-controlled media in Zimbabwe closed Sunday because its funding dried up.

For more than 13 years, SW Radio Africa aired nightly news broadcasts via shortwave and Internet radio and posted reports on its website. Its shortwave broadcasts stopped last month, and the Internet broadcasts ended Sunday.

The radio station was a thorn in the side of Zimbabwe’s ruling African National Union-Patriotic Front party, and its longtime leader, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe — one of a handful of leaders not invited to last week’s Africa summit at the White House. Critics, including the State Department, have frequently accused the Mugabe regime of torture, intimidation and election fraud.

“If you want to see how much impact we’ve had, you only have to listen to our call-back programs,” said broadcaster Tererai Karimakwenda, a member of SW Radio Africa’s staff since its inception.

“At our peak, we were broadcasting three hours a night, but with [extra] funding we could have doubled that and more,” Mr. Karimakwenda said. “People were desperate to have their say, and they used us to break stories via cellphones from the remotest parts of Zimbabwe.”

Human rights groups have accused Zimbabwean police of mounting raids in rural areas to confiscate shortwave radios — a sign of SW Radio Africa’s success in needling the authoritarian government.

Mr. Karimakwenda lamented the radio station’s closure, saying it would be a blow to freedom of expression in Zimbabwe.

A landlocked nation of about 14 million in southern Africa, Zimbabwe has been ruled by Mr. Mugabe, 90, since 1980. It has endured more than three decades of steep economic decline, widespread poverty, runaway unemployment, forcible takeovers of farms, scores of accusations of human rights abuses and crackdowns on opposition parties.

In 2000, a group of Zimbabwean journalists who had fallen out with the state-owned broadcaster launched their own radio station, only to have the government shut it down.

“I used the Supreme Court to confirm there was no law to stop anyone from launching a radio service in Zimbabwe,” said station founder Gerry Jackson. “But when we started broadcasting, armed paramilitary broke down the door and seized our equipment.”

In 2001, Ms. Jackson and a team of reporters regrouped and began broadcasting a nightly mix of news, interviews and talk from a secret location north of London.

“For our next venture in England, it was a U.S. State [Department] agency that gave us seed money to break what was then a stranglehold on radio,” Ms. Jackson said. “Although technically the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. is a national asset, it is run by ZANU-PF.”

SW Radio Africa was born, directing its broadcasts across Zimbabwe to give citizens the information their government did not want them to know.

Voice of America, which is operated by the U.S., also has a Zimbabwe service, but SW Radio Africa was the only private station based outside the country.

Ms. Jackson said the length of the crisis in Zimbabwe “led to donor fatigue.” Recent appeals for funding allowed SW Radio Africa to operate only on a month-to-month basis, she said.

At the beginning of July, it became clear that no more funds would be available and the station had no choice but to close.

Over the years, state media in Zimbabwe have referred to staffers with SW Radio Africa and Voice of America as traitors and enemies of the state, and threatened them with prison if they returned home.

Ms. Jackson said SW Radio Africa’s journalists are likely to remain in exile.

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