Blood Bath In Zim Newsrooms: Endgame for the Fourth Estate?

By Sij Ncube

HARARE, August 13, 2015 – Zimbabwe’s Fourth Estate is not being spared from the on-going job losses as media houses escalate forcible retrenchments amid revelations more than 20 000 workers, including journalists, continue falling foul to a recent Supreme Court ruling which makes it easier for employers to fire employees without benefits.

The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) on Wednesday night announced the dismissal of nearly 300 workers, among them journalists and other supporting staff, hardly a week after another state control entity Zimbabwe Newspapers Limited sent packing 109 workers from its expansive media stable.

ZBC’s Gweru-based Zimbabwe Voice of the People has been completely shut down while more purges are said to be looming at Pocket Hills, the state-controlled broadcaster’s headquarters.

The so-called private media has in the past week sacked an estimated 200 workers also using the Supreme Court ruling, also attributing the lay-offs to the prevailing harsh economic climate which has seen most firms operating below 30 percent capacity.

Shocked by the daily job cuts, the media workers representatives have moved with speed imploring media houses to exercise extreme caution in rationalising operations or risk the annihilation of the Fourth Estate which is charged with keeping in check the three arms of the state – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

The Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef) set the ball-rolling by issuing a statement urging hard-pressed media houses and employers to consider other options such as reducing allowances and other benefits.   

“Zinef notes with concern the on-going trend where our members’ contracts are being terminated on notice.

While acknowledging the economy is in dire straits due to a myriad of problems, we are appealing to Media Houses and Publishers to exercise restraint by considering other options like reducing allowances and benefits and in some instances even lowering grades.

We urge parliament to speed up the passing of a new Labour Bill which is sensitive to the interests of both the employer and employee,” reads but of the Zinef state.

But while the job losses cuts across all sectors, the media, which to all intents and purposes has not been spared by the present severe liquidity crunch, is too an important pillar of the society to be allowed to die in a country where democracy is under siege.  

Nhlanhla Ngwenya, the national director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe, said his organisation is quite disturbed by the laying off of hundreds of media employees, including journalists.

“While we are mindful of the fact that this development reflects the economic malaise the country is going through, we are worried that it will impact on the quality of media products and by extension information available to Zimbabweans.

“Even more disturbing is the fact that the firing of media workers in coming as it does while the country yearns for diverse media that is accessible and affordable to all Zimbabweans. We therefore call upon media owners to look at other sustainability strategies, which may include cutting on other operational costs. Simply focussing on the workforce is not the answer,” said Ngwenya.

According to Foster Dongozi, the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (Zuj), the trade union has been inundated with calls from media workers being arbitrarily dismissed from work in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. Zuj, just like the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (Zctu) is pinning its hopes on a new labour Act which is likely to be rail-roader in parliament in the coming days.

But Dr Admore Tshuma, a journalist-turned journalism lecturer in the United Kingdom, said while the prospect for losing a job as a journalist is very depressing in particular in a country like Zimbabwe, journalists and editors who lose their jobs should consider innovation such as international freelance and possible opening up consultancies in media.

“While this may sound like a challenge it is what many journalists around the world are doing. For instance, when the News Of The World shut Down in Britain over 100 journalists lost employment, but are surviving through international consultancy and international freelance work,” said Tshuma.

With several journalists in the state media reportedly beneficiaries of President Robert Mugabe controversial land reforms, Tshuma said from Zimbabwean perspective farming could add incentive but not the endgame.

“This is because journalists are talented people whose skills are needed globally.”