Mugabe to Mnangagwa transition: Not much media plurality,diversity yet

By Nigel Nyamutumbu

The channels of expression in Zimbabwe, particularly
the country’s mainstream media are in a few hands.
On the surface, there seems to be semblance of plurality
in Zimbabwe’s print and electronic media. There are
also encouraging signs of enhanced access to the
internet and increased uptake of social media. While
this helicopter view of the Zimbabwean media suggests
the existence of multiple platforms for citizens to
express themselves and to access information, the
grim reality is that the Zimbabwean government is
directly and indirectly in control of the country’s main
channels of expression, especially the
mainstream media.
I argue that the only way the Zimbabwean media can
comprehensively cover elections in a fair, accurate, credible
and balanced manner is to transform the ownership structures,
which are concentrated in a few hands.
I strongly recommend that all state owned media must be
transformed not only to fulfil its constitutional obligations but
to restore public trust and confidence in the mainstream media
and the licencing of community broadcasting stations.
This article analyses the country’s media political economy and
assess how this impacted on the coverage of the July 30 2018
general elections.
Public, private ownership
Zimbabwe’s print media is structured along a dichotomy of
state-owned/controlled and private media, in a manner that
has not changed since the turn of the millennium. Government
has controlling stake of the widest circulating newspapers in
the country, all of which fall under the Zimbabwe Newspapers
(1980) Limited, Zimpapers. In addition, Zimpapers runs four
radio stations, one national and three regional stations and
was recently awarded with a television license. Their main
competitors in the print sector include Associated Newspapers
Zimbabwe (ANZ) and Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) both of
which publish daily and weekly newspapers.
Graphics by Media Monitors
Beyond the government’s controlling stake in Zimpapers, the
state has 100% ownership and control of the Zimbabwe
Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), which runs the country’s sole
free to air television station Zimbabwe Television (ZTV) as well
as 6 radio stations. The other main radio broadcasting player,
AB Communications is owned by former Information
Communication Technologies (ICT) Minister and the ruling
party the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front
(ZANU PF) Central Committee member Supa Mandiwanzira.
Like AB Communications, the remaining regional privately
owned stations are all owned by individuals with links to either
the government or ZANU PF.
Same pattern
The net result of this structure is that media performance in
the 2018 elections has followed similar patterns to trends
observed in previous elections. For example, following the
elections in 2013, the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC),
which was part of the Electoral Commission’s Media Monitoring
Committee, concluded that, “the media has neither been fair,
objective or factual in the coverage of political parties and
players.”
While the environment has shifted slightly, with the entry of
new radio stations that did not cover previous elections in
Zimbabwe and less hate speech compared to the previous
elections augmented by positive media policy pronouncements;
the media in 2018 still did not present a fair, objective and
accurate representation of political parties and players.
One of the reasons why the Zimbabwean media perpetually
fail to meet the professional and legal obligations has been
the conflation of the state and the ruling party. There is little
to none distinction between government and the ruling party.
As such, state owned media, whose operations are time and
again funded by taxpayers, have an editorial inclination of
supporting the ruling party. Zimbabwe’s state controlled media
has pretty much normalised this, to the extent that it only
worsens during the electoral period.
No buffers
But perhaps even more significantly, there is no buffer between
the government and the state controlled media. The Mass
Media Trust, which was unlawfully disbanded, used to be one
such body that would ensure that there would at least be
subtle and indirect interference by government in the operations
of Zimpapers.
As it is, the individuals that call the shots at the Ministry of
Information are very influential in the editorial appointments
of Zimpapers. This effectively makes these appointments political
and not professional. One cannot then expect these editors
to suddenly trade their political hats for the professional one
during the electoral period.
If anything, these editors would be under pressure to
demonstrate their loyalty to the conflated state and party
system both in their editorial content and indeed in other
spheres of their lives. During the 2018 elections, most
mainstream editors from the public media would often publicly
show their allegiance to the ruling party by openly and
unapologetically posting pictures wearing regalia associated
with the party. This unprofessional and illegal behaviour –
according to electoral statutes that govern media conduct in
Zimbabwe – was translated in the content that was produced
during the electoral period.
The private media, which as discussed in this paper only exists
in name in the electronic media but more operational in the
print media, at least for now, offered much more space to the
opposition. This could probably have been a business decision
on their part, given that most private newspapers circulate in
areas that are dominated by the opposition. In any case, the
open bias towards the conflated ruling party and government
by the state-controlled media created a ‘market space’ for the
opposition and their sympathisers. This to a large extent has
polarised the country’s media.
One area in which this polarisation was evident during the
2018 elections was the coverage of the electoral commission
by both the state-controlled and private media. Whereas, the
private media by and large portrayed the Zimbabwe Electoral
Commission (ZEC) in a negative manner, often amplifying the
rigging allegations propagated by the opposition, the statecontrolled
media were a lot more sympathetic to the
Commission.
As a result, coverage of key electoral processes including
unpacking for media audiences the capacities and inadequacies
of the electoral commission and the net effect of that on the
results. It was almost as if both the private and public media
did not go beyond what would have been said by opposition
politicians in the case of the private media or by ZEC in the
case of the state controlled media.
Against this gloomy picture of the Zimbabwean political
economy of the media, it is necessary that there be urgent
reforms if the obtaining state of affairs is to improve in 2023.
Advocacy for reform
The recommendations will focus on how the state-owned
media ownership structures ought to be transformed.
Firstly, there is need to restore the Mass Media Trust that will

act as a go between the government and media organisations
under the Zimpapers stable. The Trust should be composed of
professionals that have a proven track record in the media
industry and are adequately equipped to defend the editorial
independence of the Zimpapers in the public interest. The
Zimpapers group must report to the Trust and not to the
Minister of Information and the same should apply to the Chief
Executive and the editorial team. During elections and beyond,
aggrieved political parties should be able to hold Zimpapers
to account with redress.
Secondly there is need to transform the state controlled
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) into a public service
broadcaster.
Legislation that establishes the ZBC, including but not limited
to the ZBC Commercialisation Act must be repealed to usher
in a new framework for the establishment of a public broadcaster
that is not answerable to government but accountable to the
public in a transparent manner. Appointments to the ZBC
Board must be on merit and conducted through Parliament in
a transparent manner. If it is during an electoral period, the
ZBC should publicise their schedules, not only to ZEC as required
by the law but to the public as a proactive disclosure
of information.
Finally, Zimbabwe needs community broadcasters that are can
cater for societal needs and further develop the country’s
media. Community broadcasting is not driven by profit and
is sustained at a local level or by the interest groups and as
such is strategic to counter the shortcomings of the mainstream
media.
Genuine community broadcasters are independent of the state
and can protect citizens from commercially driven interest that
drive the private media.

Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently
serving as the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) Programs Manager.
He can be contacted on +263 772 501 557 or njnya2@gmail.com

This article was first published in Change of Guard:Mugabe to Mnangagwa transition:

Zimbabwe media published by Media Monitors