Strategy changes needed to push Zim media forward

IN this instalment, I will try to discuss, albeit briefly, strategic issues of the media in Zimbabwe, going forward. I am not sure how far forward we should look, but I would assume that so long we look forward, it helps.

Opinion: Takura Zhangazha

And perhaps that has been the primary fault of the media sector, an inability to perceive or even try to predict what the future may look like. Not only in terms of the issues that I understand were discussed yesterday, for example, the new interface or even competition between social media platforms and the mainstream media. Or the debate around how public broadcasting, in both its national and community broadcasting sense, has to have its definitive parameters redrawn, as well as how journalists welfare and unionism impacts on their professional an ethical conduct against the backdrop of allegations of media capture, editorial control and neo-liberal assumptions of the media as profitable business.

But what is in vogue for many media stakeholders is a specific political reality of a newly-elected government that has said it is “open for business”.
The primary assumption being that it is also open for the business of discussing the media, and its primary concerns, or at least what the media and media stakeholders expect from government.

What I would definitely agree with is that the media stakeholders conference, judging by the Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services minister Monica Mutsvangwa, should not look a gift horse in the mouth given the assumption that she/government means well.

But just to give a key reminder that media stakeholders have been here before. That is, a situation where government promises reforms, extends their implementation period and then claims success over its own ineptitude or lack of political will to implement what it has consultatively promised.

That is why at the back of media stakeholders’ minds, we are still whispering about the Information and Media Public inquiry (IMPI) recommendations (as numerous as they were).

But in an Alpha Media Holdings Conversations (AMH) Facebook live discussion I participated in with co-panelists Geoffrey Nyarota, Patience Zirima and Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi, I mentioned that we cannot revert to past narratives of how government interacts with the Press, mainstream or emergent in the form of new social media-motivated platforms of access to information.

Strategically considered, Zimbabwe’s media in all it various facets (mainstream, social, mediums/technological, legal) must begin to chart a new path in the best public democratic interest. The latter being defined largely as a media that does not flinch from being more robust, self correcting, technologically savvy and democratically conscious of its role in furthering Zimbabwe’s democratic values and principles.

In the context of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ)’s work, this would require a contextual reinvigoration of its annual media strategy to not only suit our technological times but also expand the democratic value proposition of freedom of expression and access to information.

The broad thematic arenas of MAZ have been media policy and reforms, media plurality and diversity (and its sub-themes of alternative media, freedom of expression, independent mainstream media, sustainable community media, public service media), media professionalism and ethics and finally safe, equitable and enabling environments for journalists.

In our national context these thematic focus areas remain relevant not only by way of reference, but more significantly in reality. We still do not have, as cited by stakeholders adequate media policy reforms, nor do we have media plurality and diversity. Let alone media professionalism and ethics nor an equitable and enabling environment for journalists and media workers.

On the basis of the above, there is therefore no need to reinvent the wheel. It basically means we still have to address these primary challenges as enunciated in the MAZ media strategy framework for Zimbabwe.

The key question is: do we use the same methods for the same problems? The easy answer would be indeed we should.

The caution however is the speed at which we arrive at our envisioned destination. Whereas we have been cognisant of the opportunities that come with an incremental change template to the media environment, we have lost sight of the fact that the media is increasingly losing its democratic value proposition in the best public interest.

And that the Zimbabwean public may still perceive the media more as an elitist institution that serves the interests of those in power (be it in politics, business and religion) more than it may be focused on playing its independent and critical democratic role.

Hence the public in part has turned to social media platforms to seek their own version of the truth or to confirm the news that they would prefer to hear.
It is in this context that media stakeholders must undertake some strategic changes to their approach to Zimbabwe’s media reform agenda.

Top of these strategic reconsiderations is to understand the media from a political economy perspective. That is to initially emphasise its organic political reason for its existence which remains to enable and enhance freedom of expression and access to information in the democratic public interest. And this from an entirely holistic perspective (print, broadcast, social media, medium- technology).

In this same framework to then strategically look at how the media must be sustained in order to achieve its overarching political and economic objective. This is the economic side of the media. While I am aware that the Information ministry has already announced its broad “media as business” policy intentions, we must be cautious in arguing for a solely profit motivated mainstream and new media strategic framework. This sort of framework leads to multimedia ownership as is the case now in Zimbabwe with the larger media companies beginning to monopolise the sector’s various media formats (radio, print, television, new media). And this includes telecommunications companies that are also entering the broadcasting fray via the internet or provision of the mediums (data and fibre optic) without due consideration to issues of costs and its impact on public access.

These economic considerations should be also undertaken with a democratic understanding of the still important role of the public media. And how to get the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation out of the clutches of a partisan editorial policy and the profit motivated intentions by government of putting it out to dry against better equipped and soon to be licensed private broadcasters.

We have already seen this encroachment into the public service community broadcasting sphere where the licensing of commercial private local radio stations has quite literally taken over the significant strides that some community radio stations had made. We need only look at what happened to Radio Dialogue in Bulawayo and the awkward takeover of its actual studio space by SkyzMetro FM.

As I outlined earlier, in relation to the actual MAZ strategy the focus areas of stakeholders remain key. They, however, tend to lose sight of the bigger picture where and when stakeholders either act in silos or compete for their sectoral interest either with government or international partners.

What is strategically required is a greater unity of purpose and shared understanding of the urgency of an organic political economy approach to media reforms in Zimbabwe. One which understands that the current government’s economic policy of being open for business should not translate to media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information being sacrificed at the altar of media for private profit model.

Takura Zhangazha spoke here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)