Mugabe to Mnangagwa transition: Factors that influenced journalists’ and editors’ stance on issues

By Njabulo Ncube

When longtime Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe
fell during the night of November 17 2017 after 37
years at the helm two factors came immediately into
play regarding the way the media would cover the
transition from his rule to a new military-backed
administration. These were the military fear-factor and
media capture both which grossly encumbered the
media environment.
Media’s role is critical in society, especially during transititional
processes but this role can only be fairly executed in an
environment conducive to the free flow of information and
ideas, and devoid of fear and intimidation.
The media’s role during the electoral cycles surrounding
Zimbabwe’s July 30 elections was to provide information on
the electoral process by giving oversight over the legal
framework; the voting system; voter education; voters’
registration; the political environment; and the electoral body,
the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), and, very importantly
to assess its independence and credibility.
The media reported on the need for sweeping electoral reforms
so as to ensure an outcome that would be universally accepted.
The media reported on contestants, that is, parties and
candidates, and their manifestos. But the success or failure of
this endevour was quantified by observer missions which
roundly condemned Zimbabwean as not up to scratch.

Dangerous minefields

As editors and their journalists trudged along in reporting the
Zimbabwe electoral story, they were mindful of dangers and
minefields that lay ahead; just over six months after the ouster
of Mugabe in a military coup which catapulted into power his
former aide and deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa. There was
palpable fear among media practitioners of the new military
establishment that emerged. It was rare to find in the newsrooms
editors and journalists from the private media after hours.
Unconfirmed reports were abound military intelligence had
put under surveillance all newsrooms thought to be averse
to the coup.

Reflection on reportage during the
transitional period:

Factors that influenced journalists’ and editors’ stance on issues
Picture Credit: Getty Images
A number of editors from the private press briefly sought
sanctuary in neighboring South Africa during the coup in fear
of being caught up in the dragnet “to arrest criminals around
Mugabe.” In hindsight, some of them were justified to take
the gap to South Africa as they were, rightly or wrongly, linked
to the ZANU PF G40 faction that was said to be vehemently
opposed to Mnangagwa succeeding Mugabe.
When the army seized power in the dead of the night in
November 2017, Major General Sibusiso Moyo, who announced
the coup on national television, reminded all and sundry that
the media should report “responsibly.” To editors and, by
extension, their journalists, this was a loaded statement which
literally sent shivers down the spines of many a media personnel,
including publishers and even vendors.

Uncharted territory
Since independence in 1980, media practitioners were in
uncharted territory. Should they tell it as it was and be damned,
or conform to the safe dictates of political correctness?
Editors and journalists were in a dilemma whether to call
Mugabe’s ouster a coup or not a coup. This was compounded
by the fact that the change of government had been universally
accepted. Worldview seemed to be that any change of
government in Harare was necessarily good. With Moyo’s
chilling “report responsibly” statement still echoing in their
minds, the word coup was avoided like the plague with most
journalists preferring to use the new government’s mantra that
it was a military intervention that led to a “new dispensation”
taking over the reins of power.
Moyo’s statement on national television at a time when all
citizens were glued to their screens to watch the drama of
Mugabe’s power dissipating, resulted in outright self-censorship
not only in the state-controlled public media but also in the
private press.
The situation was worsened by the assault of journalists who
went to the army headquaters at KG6 Barracks to cover another
mid-night conference by the military elite.

Dire situation
The situation was very dire at the public broadcaster, the
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), which had been
seized by the military. It is on record that some journalists,
specifically newscasters, were assaulted by soldiers at Pockets
Hill, the seat of the public broadcaster, when they took control
of the station. The military has remained at ZBC to this day;
allegedly maintaining a helicopter-view of operations at the
public broadcaster.
The situation was not conducive for editors and journalists to
provide balanced information considering that the military had
now become the sole source and distributor of government
information. The seizure of the public broadcaster had an
adverse impact on the reportage of the transitional period, the
July 2018 elections and the aftermath of the polls, particularly
in the wake of the gunning down of six unarmed civilians in
the streets of Harare on August 1 2018.
Protests erupted on the day after the main opposition deemed
ZEC was delaying the announcement of elections in order to
manipulate the results. The protests turned violent and property
was destroyed. The government deployed the army to quell
the violence resulting in the death of six people. The reporting
of the events of that day showed how constrained journalists
were to report the truth. The private media picked up only the
six deaths and neglected to report the preceding violence,
while the public media picked on the violent protests and
destruction of property and underplayed the deaths.
The centralisation of information by the military which rendered
the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity virtually
comatose, created a huge vacuum for the media, leading to
the peddling of false news and fake narratives, not only in the
mainstream traditional media but also on social media.
Editors and journalists, required by media ethics to be
professional and ethical at all times even as they chase deadlines,
threw caution to the wind. Instead of staying above the fray
they became part of it. It was then that the private media
turned against the military-backed administration and began
to refer to it more as the “junta” with all the negative
connotations accompanying the word. The public media dug
in, in support of the administration.

Hard task
Impartiality became a difficult task for most journalists during
the elections due to the fear factor posed by the military with
some previously respected media personnel acting as political
commissars of ZANU PF and MDC Alliance, the two main
contesting parties. It was common to see state media journalists
and support staff clad in the campaign regalia of the main
presidential candidates, particularly Zanu PF frontman Emmerson
Mnangagwa, clearly casting doubt on the professionalism of
Zimbabwe’s public media, something, vividly captured in several
observer mission reports.
In the end media neglected their important role of helping
voters make informed choices and vote according to their free
will. Information about the electoral processes and the political
environment was poisoned by partisanship and the polarized
political environment. Reports on the political parties, their
candidates and manifestos, became biased as journalists took
sides, so the political dynamics at play were relegated
to insignificance.
During the run-up to the July polls partisan coverage came to
the fore more and more. The public or state media rallied
behind the ruling party while the private media provided largely
favourable coverage to the opposition. This was a regression
to the old situation of media polarization which had in some
respects improved soon after the coup, evidenced by the
invitation of hundreds of foreign media organisations and their
journalists to cover the coup, it’s aftermath, the pre- and postelection
periods.
As clearly captured in various reports of local, regional and
international observer mission reports, local reportage of the
elections in the legacy media indeed failed to meet acceptable
reporting standards, including the minimum standards outlined
in the SADC Guidelines on holding elections in a democracy.
Journalists’ role is to give their audiences factual, accurate and
balanced news and information in an impartial way; they fell
short on this during the transitional period, during the elections
and in the aftermath of the polls.
The Zimbabwe National Editors Forum continued nonetheless
to urge the media and journalists to stick to the basics: that
is being professional and ethical despite the volatile operating
environment and media capture, another factor which had a
bearing on how the media reported the coup and elections.

Fighting captures
ZINEF has been against media capture by any definition and
emphasised during this critical period that the editors should
always remember, despite the harsh operating circumstances,
that their real masters were the audiences not politicians,
business and owners of the media.
There was also the growing phenomenon of journalists from
different media houses joining the political fray. But ZINEF’s
position as a collective was clear on this: if one wanted to
contest in the elections, they had to first resign and then pursue
politics from outside the newsroom, and if they lost, they could
not come back immediately because they already had vested
interest in the political formations they tried to represent.
Although journalists have a constitutional right to get involved
in politics, it must not compromise the media profession and
ethical journalism.
In conclusion the Zimbabwe traditional media exposed itself
during the period under review. A kind of operation to restore
sanity and professionalism is needed. Editors and journalists
should collectively fight to defend media freedom and
professional and ethical journalism without fear or favour.

Njabulo Ncube is the National Coordinator of the Zimbabwe National
Editors Forum, former deputy Editor of Southern Eye in Bulawayo
and former Assistant Editor of The Financial Gazette. He is also
freelance journalist for Sunday Times, South Africa and the Legal
Monitor. Ncube sits on the board of the Voluntary Media Council
of Zimbabwe and is a former chairperson of the Media Institute of
Southern Africa, Zimbabwe Chapter.