Zimbabwe’s media: divided we fall…how polarisation takes over

By John Masuku

Within a space of six months, two waves of violence showed that Zimbabwean media is deeply divided in telling the country’s stories, preventing thus the much desired nation building. Government controlled press, private media and social media all reported from biased angles, leaving many confused.

On 1 August 2018, six people were gunned down by the military in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, during violent demonstrations following the country’s much disputed elections. It was the first time Zimbabweans went to polls after the fall of the long-time dictatorship of the strongman Robert Mugabe. Last month, in a new series of protests, soldiers and police reportedly killed eight people as Zimbabweans took to the streets to voice their anger against steep rises in the price of fuel and basic commodities.

The role of the media during times of conflict is more important than ever. Sticking to facts and refraining from irresponsible incitement always helps, even more so during conflict. But this doesn’t always happen in Zimbabwe. The media coverage of recent violence has shown how divided and polarized the country is after long years of dictatorship and repression and how desperately needed media reform is in the country. Even a government appointed commission of inquiry confirmed this, recommending a lasting turnaround.

Blame the Opposition

Within a space of six months, the two waves of violence showed that, even at times of conflict, the Zimbabwean media is deeply divided in telling the country’s stories, preventing thus the much desired nation building. Accounts of fatalities, injuries and destruction of infrastructure were reported extensively by various media, but they were infused with bias, subjectivity and lies.

“MDC-A slated for violence” screamed the Herald, a state-owned newspaper published in Harare, last year. It blamed the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance for the violence in the August 2018 clashes. MDC’s sympathizers took to the streets, but their decision was prompted by delays in the release of the vote results, which they suspected were due to attempts by the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) to rig the vote against the MDC’s youthful leader Nelson Chamisa.

“August 1 shootings were preplanned,”

Mr Chamisa was quoted as saying in the privately owned media and on social networks. He claimed that the fights were manipulated to tarnish his image. However, he distanced himself and his party from the troubles, a point of view that the government controlled media totally ignored.

It was common knowledge that peaceful protests in January were publicly called for by the trade union movement and some pressure groups, which got mobilized through social media. But the public media, in hock to the government, chose to passionately link mass stayaways, and the violence that subsequently broke out, to the MDC. Even the petrol bombing of the opposition party’s headquarters was not newsworthy enough for a minute of public media airtime.

Social Media Madness

But it is not solely the state media to blame. During both the August and January events, the government controlled press, private media and social media all reported from biased angles, leaving many confused.

Zimbabweans located both in the country and abroad further fueled the tension by posting hate and inflammatory messages on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp networks. Some of the messages were aimed at frightening those who chose not to get involved in the protests:

“We will come for you in your leafy suburban shops if you don’t comply and think this is only for the poor. We will destroy and burn your shops and posh vehicles.”

Cain Mathema, Zimbabwe’s home affairs and cultural heritage minister, said that most people had developed a “disease” of attacking other people on social media.

Chaos and hatred only helped the government boost its narrative and justify its later moves. Claiming that such messages could instill fear and lead to further destruction, the government last January shut down the internet. Government media followed up in apportioning blame. “The evil hand of civil society, MDC Alliance” was how the Herald summed up the destruction and looting that prompted the government to switch off the internet to widespread condemnation.

Media Reform: Who’s Taking the Lead?

Later investigations of the violence humbled the pro-government media. NewsDay, a newspaper owned by the private company Alpha Media Holdings, reported that the army was responsible for the murders, rape and armed robberies in the “brutal crackdown on civilians,” according to documents from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) passed to a U.K.-based newspaper.

State controlled media could hardly dodge blame as several sources, including the information ministry, police and various NGOs, publicly said that most of the destruction was largely the work of some renegade security forces who were involved in the clashes, and not at all perpetrated by opposition supporters, as it was widely reported in the state media. Mimicking authorities’ volte-face, the Herald wrote about the government urging women raped by “rogue members” of security forces to report the abuse to the police. Such U-turns hardly exonerated state controlled media.

But state media is only part of the problem in Zimbabwe’s polarized media environment and society. The country desperately needs media reforms that would ensure the independence of its public broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), and promote independent journalism standards, among other things. As part of the process, repressive and archaic laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act and the Broadcasting Services Act should be reformed in harmony with the constitution. Community radio, which would give voice to local communities, should be established.

So far, however, calls for such reforms made by advocacy groups have fallen on deaf ears. ZBC operates to this day as a government mouthpiece, old laws are still in place and efforts to launch community radio stations have hit a brick wall.

The Zimbabwean media system needs a serious fix. Otherwise, bias instead of facts will continue to drive media coverage and become a setback to the country’s smooth revival.

John Masuku is a Zimbabwean based broadcast journalist and Executive Director of Radio Voice of the People (VOP). He is a Fellow of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) at Central European University (CEU). John can be contacted at jjwpmasuku55@gmail.com, Twitter: @john_masuku