Covering COVID-19 pandemic-A nightmare for Zimbabwe Media

By Tapfuma Machakaire

When nature dictates that rare situation that creates an environment tantamount to tempering with basic human rights in the form of a lockdown, the media suffers. Compiling and dissemination of news requires a conducive environment, the reason media organizations notably in Zimbabwe have been clamoring for a situation that makes it plausible to provide information without fear or favor.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has made it difficult for society to conduct their day to day duties because of the need to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus and flatten the curve of new infections and deaths from the disease. In the same breath, the media in Zimbabwe has been constrained in conducting their duties at a time society is craving for information on the pandemic and its devastating effects.
A Pandemic is defined as an epidemic of infectious disease that is spreading through human populations across a large region such as a continent or worldwide. This is not a frequent phenomenon and often takes experts and governments by surprise and ill prepared for the swift responses required to save lives.
During Pandemics the man eats dog approach to news seizes to be the principal factor for determining the newsworthiness of a story. Such a crisis creates the ideal environment for   governments, political actors, the private sector, civil society and the media to bury the hatchet and combine forces for the good of mankind. A pandemic may thus serve to mend relations between authorities and media players and drive the two forces away from the tom-foolery skirmishes that have tended to undermine the role of the media in modern day “democratic” societies.
The media in Zimbabwe, like other media organizations around the world have faced challenges in reporting on the new novel coronavirus COVID-19 that was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization WHO on 11 March 2020.
It is pertinent to remind journalists writing the COVID-19 story that they are recording an important milestone in history. However, the ability to accurately and professionally capture the developments around the COVID-19 global menace is largely dependent on the state of the media in a given country. Looking at the state of the media in Zimbabwe at the time the virus became an issue, one finds that media gurus have been randomly uttering the obnoxious statement-“journalism has gone to the dogs”.
This is despite efforts to repair the damage done to the industry and reinstate the media back to its respected status as “the fourth estate”
It is thus imperative to understand the turbulence that the Zimbabwean media has been sailing through when practitioners suddenly found themselves faced with the daunting task of informing and educating the public on events surrounding the chilling effects of the invisible enemy, the coronavirus that has ravaged the world affecting millions, taking the lives of thousands and bringing business and social life to a halt.
Polarization of the media
Polarization, the dog eat dog practice in the Zimbabwean media industry effectively began around the year 1999 as a result of increased contestation for power between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) and the then newly formed labour driven party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). So intense were the political wrangles that the media was swiftly sucked in to up the game. Ironically, several media organizations and journalists found themselves falling victim to the machinations of a system that preferred a docile media that would not pollute the minds of the “patriotic and peace loving Zimbabweans”.
Independent media took a stance that saw them giving a voice to civic organizations and the new opposition party the MDC. The move was viewed by the authorities as being sympathetic with a perceived foreign funded enemy allegedly pushing for regime change.
On the other hand, state media including the national broadcasters, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) had no option save to defend government and the ruling party; taking instructions direct from the then Information and Publicity Minister, Professor Jonathan Mayo, a political scientist and former tough critic of the regime. Moyo had initially been hired to help craft a new national constitution meant to replace the compromised Lancaster House Constitution of 1979.
Despite a vigorous campaign by the ruling party and Government, the draft constitution was rejected by the people in a referendum held in 1999.
The media was thus clearly divided into two warring camps, resulting in newspapers, radio and television programs being awash with hate language, signaling a sharp decline in ethical and professional standards by media houses in Zimbabwe. Some journalists would double as political activists to the extent of applying for special leave to contest national elections. Such scribes were easily welcomed back to the newsroom after failing to win the hearts of party supporters in primary elections. Others who made it found themselves in the august house in both ZANU-PF and the MDC formations, with some being elevated to the executive as cabinet ministers.
From year 2000 the media industry was operating under increasingly repressive environment where practitioners were regularly harassed for breaching a number of draconian laws that included the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), the Official Secrets Act and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
Following the disputed results of the 2008 presidential elections, South African President Thabo Mbeki mediated in negotiations for a political settlement. The negotiating parties, ZANU-PF and the two MDC formations, having acknowledged the pitfalls in the operating environment of the media, came up with article XIX (Freedom of Expression and Communication) in the Global Political Agreement (GPA). Article XIX recognized the importance of the right to freedom of expression and the role of the media in a multi-party democracy. Among other provisions, article XIX called on both the public and private media to refrain from using abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred. It called for steps to be taken to ensure that the public media provides balanced and fair coverage to all political parties for their legitimate political activities.
Repairing the damage
Key reforms in the media during the period of the inclusive government included scrapping of the Media and Information Commission (MIC) comprised of handpicked individuals led by the not so popular Professor Tafataona Mahoso. This was the body that had presided over the merciless maneuvers against the independent media. MIC was replaced with the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) in which commissioners were to be selected through a relatively transparent parliamentary process.
The economic challenges that ravaged the country had not by any means spared the media industry, with journalists resorting to corrupt practices through what is popularly known as the brown envelope syndrome. This is a practice in which journalists accept bribes and in return either destroy juicy stories or work relentlessly to literally massacre targeted individuals or organizations, popularly referred to in the local language as Kutakata loosely translated to mean bewitching in English.
The quality of journalism graduates from tertiary institutions become a source of concern to
Editors who complained of poor writing skills or outright ignorance on the simple basics of the
News gathering let alone compiling the story.
Taking advantage of the window of opportunity created by the inclusive Government, media lobby organization such as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe Chapter, working with organizations that include the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) have been conducting training progrmmes to reorient journalists and media houses in trying to bring back normalcy to the industry.
Training programmers that include conflict sensitive journalism, back to basics workshops, press club discussions around journalism ethics and professionalism were conducted around the country. Short courses were also held to prepare practitioners for coverage of national elections attended by journalists from both the public and private media. Some of the trainings also covered safety and security issues in covering elections and volatile situations.
Through its media complaints mechanism, the VMCZ has been publishing complaints analysis reports which according to VMCZ Board chairperson Aleck Muchadehama were meant to “create an accountable, transparent and professional media that reports in the public interest and contributes to an informed citizenry through providing accurate, balanced and factual information.”
In December 2013, government through the recycled Information Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo instituted a 25-member panel of inquiry into the operations of Zimbabwe’s media industry. Geoffrey Nyarota the IMPI chairperson said the body would inquire into the state of the media and information sector and to propose recommendations to rectify whatever would be recognised as shortcomings or problem areas. Commenting on polarisation in the media in an interview with the Herald of June 21, 2014 Nyarota said  “At each and every one of the meetings that IMPI convened throughout the country participants complained bitterly about the prevalence of political polarisation in the Zimbabwe media. Some people linked polarisation to unethical journalism and corruption, while others blamed it on media owners who align themselves with political parties.
The 666 page IMPI report did not seem to have yielded the purported results and was largely criticises as a gravy train operation meant to appease bruised media players who were hired to participate in the lucrative fact finding operation.
Comments from some of the critics were “It suffers many things?—? Shallowness, repetition and frankly it’s a much-ado-about-nothing document.”
“What is apparent is that the IMPI report is not ground-breaking. The issues it identifies have been known for a while now by media stakeholders.” What then was the goal?”
The dramatic Hollywood style military driven operation restore legacy of November 2017 which brought an end to the 37year rule of Robert Gabriel Mugabe ushering in the new dispensation under President Emmerson Mnangagwa brought hope to the industry. This was a new journey widely expected to redefine relations between government and media in Zimbabwe.
An encouraging gesture saw media representatives and Zimbabwe Republic Police literally walking hand in hand around the country explaining the role of the media and safety of journalists to police details.
The effects of the ZRP/Media public relations exercise was to be put to an acid test come COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown. Such is the sad background of the composition of frontline team in disseminating and educating the public on the pandemic in Zimbabwe.
Introduction of the lockdown
Zimbabwe media started carrying stories on COVID-19 from reports of cases in Huwan city of China in December 2019.By then, to the majority of the citizens, the story sounded as one of those informative pieces from our all-weather friend in the Far East with little or no consequence to us. The phenomenal rise in the number of new cases and people dying in China coupled with the spread of the virus to other nations however signaled an impending danger for the entire globe.
President Mnangagwa announced a total lockdown for 21 days starting Monday, 30 March 2020. Only essential movement related to seeking health services, to the purchase and procurement of food and medicines and for other essential supplies and critical services were to be exempted.
Others measure included Suspension of all public transport operations excluding ZUPCO and Public Service Commission. Media was included on the list of essential services with a mandate to inform and educate the masses on the pandemic.
The morning of day one of the lockdown, journalist Kudzanai Musengi was in the city of Gweru taking pictures of the deserted streets to provide evidence that people of the Midlands capital had responded to the call by the President to stay home.
A police officer approached him and asked who he was and why he was taking the photos. Musengi explained he was a journalist at work, and produced his 2019 Zimbabwe Media  Commission accreditation card. The officer correctly observed that the card had expired, meaning there had not been proper communication to the security sector that journalists had been given the go ahead to use the 2019 cards as ZMC had not yet strated accreditation for 2020 due to a technical hitch.
Musengi was detained at Gweru central police station for over two hours as colleagues in media battled to secure his release. After the incident, the ZRP assured the media that a circular had gone to all stations around the country explaining the accreditation situation of journalists and that they were to be allowed to operate.
But that did not end the harassment as there were more cases to follow, one in Chinhoyi and others in Harare. On 11 April, respected media guru former ZUJ president and former commissioner with ZMC now consultant with the weekly Masvingo Mirror was arrested at a police check point in Masvingo despite having all his papers and driving a marked vehicle. Takaona had been assessing the effects of a government order to reopen vegetable markets in the midst of the COVIDi-19 threat.
The current scenario in the media industry is that there are hundreds of freelance journalists contributing articles mostly to online publications. The survival of freelancers relies on ability to produce juicy stories. Not all juicy articles are accurate and balanced and moreover some of the publications were established with a particular agenda. Aware of this situation and the background of a media in shambles, the authorities may be taking a cautious approach in dealing with journalists, even at this time of the pandemic where media is supposed to be playing a critical role.
At the onset of the pandemic news values in Zimbabwe were centred on the political story with the bulk of stories having a political spin. The temptation by journalists and media houses to squeeze in a political link in government interventions towards the fight against the pandemic has remained high. This was evident in coverage of donations of medical equipment, the identification and preparation of special COVID-19 isolation facilities that include Wilkins clinic in Harare and Thorngroove Hospital in Bulawayo.
Local Government Minister, July Moyo was caught off guard when he tried to answer questions about the preparedness of Thorngroove hospital to handle critical COVID-19 cases. The journalist who raised the question and her bosses were made to explain their intension after the video of Moyo at Thorngroove went viral.

Soon after announcement of the lockdown, major media organisations such as Zimbabwe Newspapers Group announced a scaling down of operations in line with the dictates of the situation.This meant that some journalists who were expected to be in the frontline were made to stay home weakening the machinery that was supposed to be oiled for battle.

The lockdown measures made it difficult if not impossible for media bodies that normally conduct workshops to prepare journalists for challenging assignments. Through such trainings media organisations could easily had been reminded of the dangers of running potentially  dangerous stories such as deceptive claims by faith healers or self proclaimed prophets on solutions to the disease.

A leading weekly pulled a surprise by carrying a report of such claims which received a barrage of attacks on the insensitivity of the paper in dealing with such a delicate subject.

One would have felt that the example of scores of people who died after being persuaded by these faith healers to abandon ARV treatment for HIV was good enough a lesson for the media.

An equally disturbing story was carried by a daily paper with a screaming front page headline warning the public to beware of a COVID-19 patient whom they accused of breaking self quarantine rules by “gallivanting” and spreading the virus. The paper waged a merciless attack on the innocent patient without giving the person room to give her side of the story.

It later turned out that the paper in a bid to protect the public, ignored basic ethics of balancing a story and in the process attacked the wrong person.

The paper was left with no option but to apologise after receiving an emotional response from the patient who happened to be among those on the frontline dealing with COVID-19 patients in the health sector. To make matters worse, a sister paper carried a follow up, this time talking to the patient who was accused of moving around and produced an emotional story with the headline COVID-19 anguish: Quarantined Bulawayo Family Speaks-Five Test Positive, youngest 3 year old. The family spoke of the abuse and stigma they are being subjected to after publication
of the damaging story. “It was said I was found. outside getting some fresh air, honestly who goes out looking for fresh air while carrying two plastic bags of groceries? But I had actually been given authority by the COVID-19 Provincial Rapid Response Team. After they tested mum, we told them we wanted to go and buy food and I was told I could go. I never spoke to people. But reports came out that I was carelessly spreading the virus. It was a painful moment because I had been tested and was awaiting my own results and the media started saying all sorts of things,” said one family member.

Privately owned media has come under fire from some quarters for allegedly succumbing to pressure from loud voices on social media where Government is accused of not giving correct statistics of the infected and those dying from COVID 19. The Ministry of Health and Child Care is supplying the regular updates with a breakdown of the cases per province of number of tests conducted, confirmed cases, number of recovered cases and number of diseased persons. Media practitioners are generally not happy with the rate at which the updates are coming and the lack of detail that they say they require to produce good informative stories.

Kindness Paradza, a journalist and Member of the House of Assembly says: While COVID-19 proved to be a challenge in terms of media reportage, the disturbing feature is that some journalists especially those working in the privately owned stables seem to be bitter if not angry with the number of casualties so far recorded in Zimbabwe. Their desire or expectations was to see a catastrophe, in with thousands of people losing their lives to this deadly pandemic. Up to now some journalists are still questioning and even doubting the official figures from the Ministry of Health and Child Care.

The state has further confused the situation by unnecessarily diverting attention from coverage of COVID-19 to political wrangles by allowing a court seating during lockdown that came up with what is now popularly referred to as the corona judgement, the case of Thokozani Khupe vs Nelson Chamisa over leadership of the opposition party. The case and further developments that include recalling of some members of parliament has changed the focus from people’s livelihoods during this difficult period and how the pandemic is being managed. As they unpack the developments, journalists have reverted to the “trenches”, a scenario of the post 2000 era discussed earlier in this article. In the process hate language begins to emerge as emotions rise drowning the messages of washing hands, social distancing, sanitizing and staying at home.

The poor state of the health sector in Zimbabwe at the onset of the pandemic worsened by sporadic strike action by the health staff is a story that has been closely monitored albeit with the political bias that goes with it. Through the news stories coming out as part of COVIDE-19 coverage it has become clear that medical tourism is coming to an end and Government is being forced to improve the health delivery system. For once, serious attention has been paid towards revival of facilities such as Ekhusileni Hospital in Bulawayo which has been lying idle for almost two decades.

Radio and television have continued to play an important role in educating the public through jingles and discussion programmes. There have however been concerns over the quality of some of the COVID-19 awareness videos clips which clearly show that they were hurriedly prepared.
Content for television has naturally been badly affected by the involuntary inactivity under  lockdown. It is difficult to record programmes under regulations that forbid gatherings, random travelling and enforcement of social distancing.

Garirikai Kashoti is an independent producer who produces the weekly current affairs programme Constituency Talk for ZTV. He speaks: My programme involves travelling to the constituencies. Since the lockdown travelling has been a problem. We also usually gather people for recordings but we are no longer allowed to have gathering of more than 50 people. We have not been able to produce a programmes for five weeks. We are having to redesign our programme concept to focus on COVID-19 awareness in the constituencies.

Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe Director Laughty Dube says limitations in terms of resources has constrained the media from effectively covering the disease as all information is controlled from government. “Lack of PPEs for use by media means media cannot venture out and do their own investigations. The COVID 19 experience creates an opportunity for the media to explore a different business models.”

Journalist Mandla Tshuma says “Frankly speaking, COVID-19 caught us unawares as the media fraternity and as a result a number of journalists, myself included, never received any training on how to cover the pandemic. All I am doing is to just write what I have access to.Lockdown restrictions on public transport that I heavily rely on have limited my mobility as a reporter as most of the times I report while confined to my home. There is now too much reliance on officials as sources of news as opposed to me going to the scenes of the news.
While I have not yet had serious problems with the security forces, their presence on the streets of Bulawayo makes me nervous and even afraid of taking photographs as I do not know what action they might take against me.”

Lulu Brenda Harris had this to say ”I have covered mostly the epidemiological aspects of the virus by following up on the confirmed cases -asking doctors for explanations, the social aspects of the virus such as effects to society including the economic and political impacts of the virus to a country’s economy, livelihoods and legislation.

Most interviews are now done over the phone and online, as some sources avoid face to face interviews, as part of social distancing. The lockdown has limited movement to move freely and interact with people, because even if one can move around as a journalist there will be few people to talk to -unless if it’s a in queue for mealie meal of water. I personally made the prerogative to read online about the trends and acceptable terms or phrases to use when covering COVID-19.”

A correspondent for a foreign media organization Lungelo Ndlovu says “I report for an international media outlet based in the UK and I was lucky, the news agency accepted COVID-19 reports from Zimbabwe and I was able to file articles and earn an income. Some freelance journalists I know were rendered jobless because of the pandemic. My coverage of COVID-19 focused on marginalized communities of Zimbabwe such as access to water and lack of personal protective equipment, giving in-depth coverage.”

World Press Freedom Day commemorations were held under lockdown with no gatherings of the practitioners.
In his commemoration message MISA chairperson Golden Maunganidze pointed out that during the 21-lockdown period and prior to its extension, the organisation recorded 15 cases involving the arrests, assaults and harassment of journalists and newspaper vendors. “These violations resulted in MISA Zimbabwe successfully filing for a High Court order barring the police and any other state security agents from arresting, detaining or interfering with the work of journalists. In a related development and back-to-back with that application, MISA Zimbabwe, filed yet another successful application with the High Court compelling the Ministry of Health and Child Care and the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, to promote citizens’ access to information pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic continues to be a menace media should remember the often forgotten millions of people in the rural areas who are by now most likely confused over what exactly is going on. Probably except for one village in Mhondoro where people were subjected to tests following the death of a patient, the pandemic remains a folk tale.

Media in Zimbabwe are the forgotten front line soldiers often persecuted for doing their job undeterred by the fact the first victim of the pandemic was one of their own Zororo Makamba. Rest in peace Zororo Makamba.Zorora Murugare Zororo Makamba.
Tapfuma.chihwa@gmail.com