Media Houses Closures A Blow To Citizens’ Information Rights

By Sij Ncube

Zimbabwe’s media houses are singing the blues as two independent newspapers are the verge of closing due to the imploding economy but analysts say it is a major blow to citizens’ right to alternative sources of information.

The Zimbabwe Mail, owned by transport minister Obert Mpofu, reportedly closed shop last week after producing its final edition on Wednesday, throwing into the streets several employees without any severance packages.

Workers, including journalists, had long complained of late salaries and poor working conditions since the paper opened in 2014. The workers were reportedly paid their full salaries early last year and have been getting half salaries.

But it is the pending closure on April 1 of the Bulawayo-based newspaper Southern Eye, part of the AMH stable which publishes NewsDay, Independent and The Standard, that has sent shock-waves in the media sector as the paper, which is popularly known in Matabeleland as The Eye, was seen as giving state dailies a run for their money.

Those in the know claimed Southern Eye “has been sabotaged” by some AMH bosses who were vehemently opposed to the establishment of the regional paper they felt was competing with the group’s  perceived flag-ship NewsDay.

Staff from Southern Eye offices has reportedly been dandled voluntary retrenchment packages while there are moves to re-deploy others to AMH head office in Harare.  

In a press statement on Thursday announcing the restructuring and remodelling of Southern Eye into a digital publication with effect from April 1, 2015, AMH publisher Rita Chinyoka said the popular regional paper would maintain a reduced presence in the form of an insert inside the groups national daily NewsDay.

“The decision to turn Southern Eye into a digital publication follows a realignment of the business module. Southern Eye online has a healthy following which we believe deserves greater content that tells the story of the day to day issues of communities living in the two Matabeleland provinces, Masvingo and the Midlands,” said Chinyoka, adding that the strategy to ramp up Southern Eye digital content would see the current website being optimised to carry more video and audio files and to make it more interactive.  

But media activists while not disputing that the dead economy is directly to blame for imminent newspaper closures, the development has adverse effects on the citizen’s right to alternative sources of information.

In Matabeleland for instance where the state media has been dominant for over 100 years, the Southern Eye and to a smaller extent The Zimbabwe Mail provided alternative platforms for diverse citizens’ voices.

State and Zanu PF controlled Chronicle is seen regaining its strangle-hold of the southern region readership and advertising.  “The imminent closure of the publication (Southern Eye) is a heavy blow on the citizens’ right to access to alternative sources of information,” said Nyasha Nyakuni, Misa Zimbabwe programmes coordinator in a statement.

“In its short-life span, Southern Eye had assumed a critical role in amplifying the voices of marginalised communities in Masvingo, Midlands and Matabeleland regions whose concerns and issues may escape coverage by the national mainstream media,” Nyakuni added.

Political analyst Blessing Vava, described the latest developments in the private media as a dark moment in the industry, pointing out that it further shrinks the concept of diversity “because citizens will be left with a few alternative sources of news.”

“The challenges facing the media industry are inter-twinned to the economic woes facing Zimbabwe, as long as the there is little disposable income the media industry is not spared,” said Vava.

Executives in the media industry say the closures confirm that all is not well in the entire sector citing an imploding economy, pointing out that even the state media was reeling from the harsh economic environment as the Zimbabwe Newspaper Limited, publishers of The Herald, Chronicle, The Sunday Mail, Manica Post and an array of other propaganda titles, has instituted a voluntary retirement package.An assistant at the Herald was suspended for publishing falsehoods by publishing a story referring to Zimbabwean economy a true situation on the ground.

Advertising and circulation figures are also said to be very low in both the private and public media.

Zim-papers, for instance, has been forced to reduce the cover price of its vernacular publications Kwayedza and Umthunywa from $1 to 50 cents while advertising rates for classified are now down to 40 cents per word from 70 cents.

“There is blood on the floor,” remarked a senior executive with a private weekly publication.  

The industry, however, eagerly awaits the information ministry’s response to the IMPI report which was presented to the minister Professor Jonathan Moyo on Wednesday specifically on how the local media industry could remain viable and sustainable in the work of evolution in the digital sector.