Zimbabwe media on right path yet commitment to reforms is in deficit

Published : 7 May 2016
As we join the rest of the World in commemorating World Press Freedom Day, it is important to note that Zimbabwe has achieved as many positive strides in advancing media and freedom of expression rights yet there is a long road ahead and indeed many pitfalls that threaten the full enjoyment of this right.
Zimbabwe is not the same as 10 years ago as the new constitution guarantees press freedom, new radio stations have been licensed, yet there remain grievous threats to media and free expression rights with the economy remaining in doldrums and the political leadership threatening to clampdown on internet freedoms especially social media and old and undemocratic laws remain in our statutes and continue to be used to this day.
The main challenge to Zimbabwe’s media is that its fortunes are tied to the political trajectory of the country and the tensions in the political environment are reflected in the media.
The media is not only reporting on the political tensions but has also taken sides with the state owned media focusing more on  attacking both internal enemies of President Robert Mugabe as well as opposition parties and civic groups.
The privately owned media on the other hand has taken a position to attack President Robert Mugabe’s government and ruling party ZANU PF, exposing governance weaknesses and human rights abuses mostly from a political and not social justice and rights basis. A key weakness of both sides of the media is an absence of a focus on key national issues from a developmental perspective with as many stories being on personalities, their actions and political views.
There is little policy interrogation that help the public make decisions.  It is for this reason that newspapers like the Masvingo Mirror, locally based and focused on local issues are not only important but essentially becoming the peoples media or newspaper. This as it may, the very existence of the private media is a cause to celebrate and a result of painstaking advocacy work to push back anti media laws that saw newspapers being banned, others bombed and journalists exiled.
The mere existence of as many media players is a positive development this in the absence of a qualitative analysis of the content, which as already noted still needs improvement.
In the last 4 years the Zimbabwe government licensed new privately owned newspapers that include the now defunct Zimbabwe Mail, Southern Eye, The Flame and a host of provincial owned newspapers. The Zimbabwe government also licensed 10 radio stations with 2 of them (ZiFm and Star FM) being national commercial radio stations and the remaining 8 being metro based commercial stations.
Of these only 6 are owned by private entities with the remaining 4 owned by state owned or linked entities.
The licensing processes for media organisations as well as the accreditation of journalists while still a burden financially appears to be less political.
This is evidenced by the 2013 licensing of the now defunct, The Zimbabwean, seen as adversarial to the Zimbabwe government.
Zimbabwe’s media however remains dominated by the state owned media with the state owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) operating the only television station, and 4 radio stations on FM. ZBC’s Vernacular Radio Zimbabwe remains the dominant radio station listened to by nearly 80% of the listenership with remaining 20% shared by the remaining stations.
Access to TV is also growing with nearly 3,5 million households estimated to have access to Free To Air Television hence can access free satellite broadcast programmes mostly entertainment and religious programmes.
Zimbabwe news programme accessed on FTA include religious programmes as well as Channel Zim.  It is also interesting to note that with 100% mobile penetration there is a growing FM radio listenership using mobile phone handsets.
Independent radio stations that include ZiFM and YA FM are providing much needed space for commentary and publicity on socio-economic and political issues, this by allowing civic society and other social groups’ space to talk about such issues. It is important to note that while this space exist the same radio stations are not comfortable tackling some issues that include the succession debate and leadership issues in general.
The long leash of the political fear still hovers above the new stations and this scenario will likely continue for as long as the tensions in politics remain.
This scenario is also largely as a result of the skewed ownership structures of the media in Zimbabwe, in which the new radio stations are owned by entities either directly controlled by the state such as Star FM under Zimpapers media group owned by the government, or by individuals with strong links to the government and this including ZiFM.
All the new 8 metro stations are either owned by governmental agencies including book distributor Kingstons and individuals linked to the ruling ZANU PF party. The ownership structure is a sore point for media advocates that needs continued advocacy to create a democratic media licensing set up, independent of state and political control.
On May 3 we also recognise and celebrate the fact that the public’s use of social media and mobile platforms such as WhatsApp is on the rise.
Figures from the Post and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe show that internet use stands at about 50% and mobile phone penetration has reached 100% penetration as informed by the number of mobile phone in use.  Access to information using social media platforms that include Facebook and Twitter is also on the increase.
Efforts at further building the media have been made with the Ministry of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services setting up an Independent Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) whose report that was completed early 2015.
The IMPI process was initiated by the Ministry with a view of soliciting citizen views on the state of the media and develop an agenda for media policy reforms. The challenge going forward is to ensure that the government takes steps to implement the recommendations.
The IMPI reports faces the political risk of being buried in ongoing internal ZANU PF fights, more so as the initiating Minister, Jonathan Moyo has since been moved to Higher Education from Information.  Regardless of this, there is need to keep the IMPI report on the public agenda as well as advocate for steps towards implementation.  All citizens must have an interest in this process as media rights are citizen rights.
On this May 3 it is also important to celebrate the nullification of Criminal Defamation by the Constitutional court in February 2016 after a challenge by MISA. This case has divided the government with former Information Minister Moyo supporting the annulment of criminal defamation while VP and Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangangwa was opposed to the repeal of criminal defamation law. This discord is largely attributed to the factional fights in ZANU PF with Moyo and Mnangangwa reportedly on different sides of the warring factions.
Despite these victories and a fairly democratic constitution, Zimbabwe’s media legal environment remains undemocratic with as many anti media laws that include AIPPA, BSA, Interception of Communications Act, among others still in place.
These laws are still being used by state institutions to harass the media. State institutions including the police still demonstrate disregard for media rights with as many journalists and media houses coming under pressure from the police, and national leaders. This, through arrests, searches, and threats.  An example is the arrest and sentencing to 8 Months of Chiredzi based Journalist Patrick Chitongo for publishing a newspaper without registration.
There also remain concerns on the politicisation of the media with the Herald and ZBC under attack from some ZANU PF leaders for biased reporting in the ongoing internal power struggles while the independent media is under attack from the Information Ministry on allegations of negative reporting.
The government plans to enact a Cyber law would enhance the state surveillance on citizen communication including social media postings hence an attack on freedom of expression rights.  May 3 affords us an opportunity to reflect on these matters but more importantly guard jealously what we have gained while pushing for change.
The media including this newspaper are platforms for the exchange of information, without them our society is as good as moving blind, chances of falling into potholes are high.
And we have seen that with the reported looting of 15 billion in diamond money, the Chingwizi disaster, corruption at State Procurement Board. If these issues have been out in the media chances are they would not have happened or stopped on time. There are bad men and women out there, with power and influence who have as many things to hide, and these things affect of all of us hence the need for newspapers like the Masvingo Mirror, hence the need for media and freedom of expression.

About MISA Zimbabwe

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe was founded in 1996. Its work focuses on promoting, and advocating for, the unhindered enjoyment of freedom of expression, access to information and a free, independent, diverse and pluralistic media.