Can Zimbabwe’s high-stakes election usher in a new dawn for its media?

A newspaper seller in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe, on 22 November 2017, the day after President Robert Mugabe resigned. (AP/Ben Curtis)

Watching the nightly news on Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster, ZBC, in the run-up to the country’s historic elections on 30 July is a surreal experience. There’s an endless procession of news items focused on long speeches recorded at political rallies or groundbreaking ceremonies held predominantly by the ruling party, Zanu-PF. Men – they are nearly always men – dressed in party regalia impress huge crowds with glittering promises of reviving an economy that has been on life support for the last two decades. Such is the consistency in form and content that viewers would be forgiven for asking: “Didn’t I just listen to him? Wasn’t this on yesterday?”

Read the country’s biggest newspaper, The Herald, and things aren’t much different. Five out of ten stories on the first three pages of the 26 July 2018 edition of the state-owned paper were puff pieces about the incumbent, President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. For the man known as ‘ED’ amongst his supporters and ‘The Crocodile’ by his foes, this election will either legitimise the power he seized from former president Robert Mugabe (the man he served as a trusted lieutenant for nearly five decades) following a ‘soft coup’ in November 2017, or it will signal the end of Zanu-PF’s 38-year stranglehold on Zimbabwe.

Unsurprisingly, Zimbabwe’s media has a crucial role to play in this election. For the first time since Mugabe helped Zimbabwe secure its hard-won independence from white minority rule in 1980, the 94-year-old former president will not appear on the ballot.

In his place are 55 political parties, 23 first-time presidential candidates and countless others running for parliamentary and local government seats across the country. At least 60 per cent of Zimbabwe’s roughly 5.6 million registered voters are under the age of 40, many of whom will voting for the first time. Citizens are in desperate need of good-quality, well-researched and unbiased information and analysis on the policies and ideas that will define Zimbabwe’s future. But is the country’s media up to the task?

“Zimbabwe’s media is captured,” says Lucy Yasini, a former ZBC producer and freelance journalist. “Since 2000 [editor’s note: when the original MDC under Morgan Tsvangirai began to pose a serious threat to Zanu-PF’s dominance] our media has been polarised.” There is a state monopoly in the broadcast sector, and even though radio is the most widely accessible form of mass communication in Africa, there are no independent, licensed community radio stations in Zimbabwe.

Though some semblance of private ownership exists in the print space, the lack of competition produces a paucity of plurality across all sectors. “Zimbabwe’s media is largely dominated by the narratives of the ruling party, so giving space to dissenting or alternative views can be seen as doing people a favour, rather than a professional obligation,” says Nigel Nyamutumbu, programme manager at the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe. “Even in the private media, there are challenges around agenda-setting and partisan views.”

“This election is different from the others”

The stakes are always high for Zimbabwe’s elections but none more so than today’s. “What they [editor’s note: Mnangagwa and the military generals that are widely considered to be the real power behind his government] are fighting for is legitimacy,” says Yasini. “To those that understand the process that took place in Zimbabwe last year, it was a coup and the people in power are illegitimate. They were not voted for, they were not removed by parliament, nor were they placed there by the Zimbabwean voters who have the power to do so. They trampled on the constitution of Zimbabwe, so how can we trust these people to respect the same constitution tomorrow?”

To counter this perception, Mnangagwa has been on an eight-month charm offensive,writing op-eds for the New York Times, wooing local and international captains of industry with his “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” slogan and courting the white farmers who bore the brunt of Mugabe’s controversial land reforms. Once a feared army lieutenant implicated in the massacre of over 20,000 people from the Ndebele tribe during theGukurahundi massacres of the 1980s, Mnangagwa has now positioned himself as the guardian of democracy in Zimbabwe. He has repeatedly promised free and fair elections, and while the political environment is better now than during previous polls, there have been reports of intimidation and coercion, accusations of bias levelled at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and serious objections to the format and printing of the ballot papers, as well as the legitimacy of the voters’ roll by the MDC.

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“In terms of the democratic space, there has been an improvement,” says Nyasha Nyakunu, programme coordinator for the Zimbabwean chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Zimbabwe). “If we look back to the 2002 elections, or 2005 or 2008, we would normally have more than 20 or 30 cases involving media freedom violations, be it assaults or detentions or journalists being barred.” At the time of writing this article, only a couple of cases had been reported. “We attribute that decline to the new Constitution of 2013 which explicitly provides for the right to media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information,” Nyakunu says.

“This election is different from the others,” freelance video journalist Vitalis Jeremiah tells Equal Times: “It is very peaceful. Before, there was a lot of intimidation, a lot of violence. If there was a demonstration, the people would be met with water cannon and rubber bullets. You couldn’t even hold a camera in the streets for five minutes without being approached by someone from the security services.”

Walking around the capital city, Harare, one can see the green shoots of glasnost. Street vendors sell red MDC scarves alongside the multi-striped neckwear of Zanu-PF. Walls, trees and cars are plastered with political posters from across the spectrum, and even ZBC has somewhat opened its airwaves to opposition debates.

Is this thawing the beginning of a new political season in Zimbabwe? Foster Dongozi, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), is sceptical. “The government say all the right things now. Overtly they are much nicer. But I don’t know what they say when we leave the meetings that we hold,” he says drily. “They tell us that we are ‘good people’ and that it is ‘unfortunate’ about the past. But the past is not just about Robert Mugabe,” says the former Daily News journalist, a leading independent newspaper that was twice bombed in 2000 and 2001 before being shut down by the government in 2003 (it eventually reopened under new management in 2010). “The military used to hide behind Mugabe; now they are in charge. And they have a very low tolerance for criticism.”

For Dongozi, real change can only be achieved by a democratic government voted into power in free and fair elections, and meaningful media policies: “The oppressive environment is still there. Visible change should be introduced, not through verbal assurances but through structures, through appropriate legislation and the enforcement of that legislation, so that we don’t have to rely on the fact that so-and-so woke up on the right side of their bed to work freely as journalists.”

The challenge of policy, poverty and patriarchy

As home to some of the first newspapers in Africa, a once-enviable education system and some of the highest literacy rates on the continent, Zimbabwe has a history of producing high-quality journalism, traces of which can still be found, even amongst those working within the confines of the state-run media. But decades of repression, economic crises, harassment, detentions, police brutality, abductions and torture has taken its toll.

During the worst years of the Mugabe regime, as well facing the threat of violence, a number of repressive laws were enacted to muzzle the media, of which the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) is probably the most contentious. It attempts to regulate the right of access to information, data protection, media ownership and indeed, who can work as a journalist. In short, it violates the 2013 Constitution. “We cannot talk of an improved media environment in Zimbabwe until we see the repeal of laws that inhibit the practise of journalism,” says Nyamutumbu of the Media Alliance.

The poor remuneration and working conditions endured by Zimbabwean journalists are also major issues. Full-time and permanent journalism jobs are rare, making journalists susceptible to corruption.

And despite an ongoing cash crisis, many are forced to do additional jobs completely unrelated to their profession to make ends meet, such as selling groceries or second-hand clothes or engaging in cross-border trading. “Poverty creates a fertile ground for unprofessional journalism,” says ZUJ leader Dongozi, who tells Equal Times that even he once worked as a pest controller during lean periods. Increasing numbers of journalists also find themselves unable to pay their union dues which leaves them without any protection from labour violations.

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For women in the media, the challenges are even greater. “Zimbabwe is already a very patriarchal society, and this is a male dominated industry,” says Yasini. “When I was with the state media, female journalists were only allowed to report on certain areas.” According toa 2015 report published by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) women in Zimbabwe’s media are often ghettoised in administration, advertising and marketing roles. Additionally, the abuse offemale candidates and election officials during the current campaign has been so virulent that the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and the former Irish president Mary Robinson both expressed their shock during a three-day, pre-election visit to Harare earlier this month as part of The Elders. Sexual harassment is also a massive issue in the industry. “You face harassment from colleagues, from the people you are interviewing, harassment from your editors,” says Yasini. “You really need to be thick-skinned.”

Like journalists everywhere else in the world, Zimbabwe is also having to deal with the very real danger of disinformation. The recent monetisation of a tool that has been relentlessly employed by Zanu-PF for political gain has only turbo charged its toxicity. But at least Zimbabwe has a head-start in trying to find a solution. “When it comes to ‘fake news’ in Zimbabwe you can trace it all the way back to the armed liberation struggle of the 1960s when the white establishment used blatant lies and propaganda to affect morale,” says Dongozi. For example, if there had been a battle or ‘contact’ between the Rhodesian security forces and black nationalist guerrillas, the official media would always under play the number of Rhodesian deaths and inflate the number of dead ‘terrorists’ (or ‘terrs’), he explains.

The road ahead?

In a globalised media environment where entire revenue models are centred on ‘click-hate’, tackling fake news is not only a matter of ethics – it’s a matter of survival. “We must ensure that those who are in decision-making positions are made aware of the dangers of fake news, not just to their own structures but to society,” says Cris Chinaka, a former senior correspondent and bureau chief for Reuters and founder of Zimbabwe’s first independent online fact-checking organisation, ZimFact.

Nyamutumbu of the Media Alliance agrees: “The current business model is unsustainable because it will drive people away from the mainstream media. People in Zimbabwe will no longer want to sacrifice a dollar, which in this economy is already competing with a loaf of bread, to buy a newspaper of little informational value. We need to reorient our media to understand that in the end, the thing that will gain us the readership and audience that we want is truthfulness. It’s impartiality.”

Chinaka says that globally, journalists are failing to listen to the needs of ordinary people, and that like the 2016 Trump election in the United States, Brexit and other major political upsets, Zimbabwe’s media might have “missed the real story” of this election.

“We are living in echo chambers where we feed off in each other in an incestuous way, and technology is actually alienating us from ordinary voices. We have failed to tell the story of the common man’s basic needs in this election, which range from safety and security to welfare needs, healthcare, education and jobs.”

Zimbabwe’s media will have to go back to basics if it is ever going to salvage its reputation, he says. “At the moment, 70 to 80 per cent of what we report is about what leaders and politicians say, so we end up directing political messages from the leadership to the people. It should be the other way around! When we balance that out, when we try to give a voice to the people of Zimbabwe, we may start to regain their trust.”

This article was made possible by funding from Union to Union, an initiative of the Swedish trade unions.

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