An initial case for a Zimbabwe media bailout fund

By Takura Zhangazha

Zimbabwe’s mainstream and emerging media have always been faced with the challenge of sustainability in a number of respects.  Top of the list in recent years has always been the challenge of viability and ability to generate revenue to remain going concerns.  Other’s relating again to sustainability include maintaining its integrity and professionalism so as to remain valued by the Zimbabwean public for its essential democratic role.

In the wake of COVID-19 this question sustainability has become even more apparent if not downright debilitating for the mainstream media as a key element of a democratic state. The democratic assumption of its role as a ‘fourth estate’ of society is evidently under siege as it relates to its short, medium and long term sustainability.

Due to government ordered lockdowns, the mainstream media has like any other industry been faced with a reduction in its capacity to disseminate public interest news and entertainment. Be it in electronic (radio/TV), print media, community media or emerging online news platforms that focus on professional journalistic content.

While it remains the print media that is hardest hit in relation to actual sales or advertising revenue, the very fact that all other media platforms that rely on producing ethical, professional content for readers, viewers and listeners in the public interest are incapacitated makes this a sector wide dilemna.

It also makes the sustainability crisis of Zimbabwe’s media one that requires all hands on deck in order to keep the essential democratic role of the media in enabling freedom of expression and access to information. This, as outlined in not only our national constitution’s bill of rights (sections 61 and 62) but also as observed as international best practice and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).

The media therefore must exist. Where it is facing serious challenges to its viability as is the case with the Covid19 pandemic, it must be assisted to stay afloat in order to fulfill its democratic public interest role of enabling free expression and access to information.

In my view, the urgency of keep in free expression, access to information and media freedom as key democratic priority areas requires a media bailout funding framework. Not just for state owned/controlled media or public media but also privately owned/controlled media. In their various forms and mediums.

In other sectors such as tourism, banking or manufacturing this is also sometimes referred to as a stimulus package for what governments refer to as critical industries.

The media may not be on priority lists of economic pundits vis-a-vis its democratic national importance or necessity in times of crisis. However in the current context, before COVID-19 and in the future, the media is an essential democratic service that requires new sustainability frameworks that support it to remain operational. Especially in light of lockdowns.

A key question that emerges is where would any funding for bailing out struggling media entities come from?

An easy answer tot that is that the primary guarantor of such bailout funding should be the state. Just as much as the state has to set up funding frameworks for arts and culture, tourism or mining, it is clear that it has a democratic obligation to enable media sustainability. Even if the government of the day does not agree with editorial positions of various media houses an independent funding framework enabled by the state is entirely possible.

Enabling however does not mean there are no other stakeholders that should play a role. Those that can and who have free expression and access to information in a democratic society at heart should be able to either participate or set up their own media sustainability funding frameworks. Based on their own philanthropic or other values, the contributions of other stakeholders in helping keep Zimbabwe’s media not only afloat but professionally, ethically and democratically viable can only be encouraged and welcomed with open arms.

The mechanisms of this media bailout fund would be expressly for those that need it. In our case, one way or the other it is a majority of mainstream and emerging online journalistic media that would require it. It would function more like an assistance fund, where grants are given in the immediate to media hoses based on a set of criteria arrived at by all stakeholders. This criteria will include also assistance for media houses that are focusing on new ways of working and disseminating journalistic news. All via a democratically independent adjudication process.

And for this, I think it is imperative that Zimbabwean media stakeholders meet to initially address and hopefully agree on what would be the objectives, operational mechanisms and expected results of such a media bailout funding framework. However complex it may initially appear and whatever divergent ideological vies of the media.

What remains evident is that the media in our context cannot simply be viewed as a business. It is an essential aspect of our democracy. However flawed the latter may be viewed to be. While media owners, journalists and media support organisations may currently be struggling with new ways of working, they should not however lose sight of the democratic necessity of their existence. Even more so in a time of the pandemic that is COVID-19 and increasingly arbitrary means of controlling the public by governments across the world.

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha,blogspot.com)