The High Court’s recent ruling and findings on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and Zimpapers’ biased coverage vindicates and buttresses the incessant calls for the long-overdue transformation of the state-controlled media houses.
High Court judge Justice Joseph Mafusire, in a judgement dated 19 June 2019, ruled that ZBC and Zimpapers acted unconstitutionally during Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections as they failed to provide a fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions.
Several reports by election observers to the 2018 elections notably, the African Union Election Observer Mission (AUEOM), SADC observer missions, European Union Observer Mission and National Democratic Institute, made similar findings on the unprofessional conduct of the state media. The observer missions said their coverage was in favour of Zanu PF.
Justice Mafusire said the two media houses had breached Section 61 of the Constitution (which provides for freedom of expression and media freedom). He ordered ZBC and Zimpapers to ensure their communications do not show bias in favour of one political party or its candidates and that they exercise impartiality and independence in their duties.
MISA Zimbabwe, therefore, urges the government to take serious note of Justice Mafusire’s observation that:
“State media are national assets. They must be accessible to all. By virtue of the Constitution and the various pieces of legislation … the applicants (Veritas), like any other citizen of this country, have a clear right to receive fair, unbiased and divergent views to enable them to make informed choices.
“Partisan broadcasts and skewed reporting lead to polarity and threaten national peace. There can be no other remedy but to interdict the wrongful conduct.”
The court’s ruling imposes a serious obligation on the government to allow for the transformation of these two public assets for them to exercise their right to editorial independence in the execution of their professional duties as provided for by the Constitution.
In that vein, the government should take the necessary steps to secure ZBC’s editorial independence and governance by a board accountable to the public through parliament. In addition and among other critical measures, policies should be put in place to ensure its protection from any form of outside interference or attempts to compromise its independence.
As for Zimpapers, MISA Zimbabwe reiterates its calls for the resuscitation and reconstitution of the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust which acted as a buffer between the company and government to protect its editorial independence.
Without that, government’s oft-repeated ‘new dispensation’ mantra will remain hollow if it is not matched and underpinned by democratic media law reforms backed by revamped and transformed public media as well as the boards and regulatory bodies under its firm grip and handcuffs.