Robert Mugabe reneges on promises of media reforms

OPINION – Against a backdrop of President Robert Mugabe’s government’s record of media oppression and using state-controlled media to promote the partisan politics of Zanu-PF, Zimbabwe’s government of national unity seemed to begin its rule in the perfect way by ending a bloody decade for the media.

A pledge to reform media, the appointment of a new media commission to “liberalise” the airwaves and a promise to review the country’s tough media laws brought renewed hope. Pity these commitments have yet to materialise. By RAY NDLOVU.

Zimbabwe achieved the dubious distinction of making it onto The Committee for the Protection of Journalists’ “World’s worst places to be a journalist” report in both 2002 and 2004. But the government of national unity, formed in 2009, seemed to promise change. In May 2010, the new-look Zimbabwe Media Commission, in its strongest signal to promote a diverse and free press, licensed four new private newspapers to operate in the country and further reinforced the GNU’s commitment to a vibrant media industry. At the time, NewsDay, owned by media mogul Trevor Ncube (also executive chairman of the Mail & Guardian), the Daily Gazette, the once-popular Daily News, which was shut down in 2003 and the Daily Mail were granted operating licences. To date, only NewsDay has started publishing. Now another newspaper, Daily Nation, begun by the late black empowerment crusader Roger Boka, has been licensed.

But as the GNU commemorated its second anniversary earlier this month, it is evident to many that there is little reason to smile – changes in the media have been token efforts only. The real levers of power in Zimbabwe’s rocky media landscape lie in the broadcasting sector and remain firmly in the hands of Zanu-PF, which has shown no signs of letting go its grip. But this is also expected, considering the GNU is a makeshift arrangement, which brought Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai together in 2009 and will end once elections are held later this year. It was improbable from the onset that Zanu-PF would commit faithfully to an overhaul of the broadcasting sector, its trump card for politicking.

Zanu-PF may as well scoff at recent data released by the Zimbabwe All Media Products Survey showing a slump in viewership of the state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, which is down to 24% of the population, from 34% in the last quarter of 2010. Despite this large drop, the party can still find comfort in the high volume of coverage offered by radio and television versus newspapers, which are hampered by high distribution costs and poor road networks preventing them from reaching households across the country.

ZBC’s 31-year-old monopoly of the airwaves has seen it instrumental in broadcasting highly partisan content and Zanu-PF jingles supportive of Mugabe, while upping the tempo of anti-imperialism rhetoric. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change has been on the receiving end of ZBC’s campaign, being labelled “a puppet of the West”. While in turn, the MDC has dismissed ZBC as “a conveyor belt of Zanu-PF propaganda”, the party has also made impassioned pleas for impartiality from the state broadcaster – a subtle acknowledgment of the power of broadcast in reaching the electorate.

But ahead of elections widely expected later this year, the arrest in December 2010 of several journalists in the private media hinted at the changes being illusory and sounded warning bells to the country’s press corps. Nqobani Ndlovu and Nevanji Madanhire of The Standard newspaper face charges of criminal defamation against the police after reporting that recruitments in the police force had stopped and war veterans were being called up to fill vacant posts.

The signs of tight control over the media are all too evident. All journalists are required to register with the media commission. The registration fees – exorbitantly hiked by as much as 400% last month by the ZMC – can set journalists back anything between $20 and $500 for only a year’s registration. International media houses that operate bureaus in the country are now paying $6,000 a year, up from $2,000 previously. Key to the logjam in the effort to “open up” the media as promised by the GNU is the cocktail of repressive media laws still in place. Laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and Official Secrets Act circumscribe journalists’ gathering of information. Despite a pledge from Tsvangirai to repeal the repressive AIPPA by March 2010, it remains a living reality to every journalist working in Zimbabwe.

And the situation doesn’t look set to improve any time soon. Indications are that promises to amend various media and security laws by the end of this year may not be met, as the government is pre-occupied with electioneering and drumming up support for its candidates. It seems certain that the GNU’s mandate will be expire before any real changes to media freedom in Zimbabwe are effected. FAM

Ray Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean freelance journalist. He is a contributor to the Mail & Guardian and City Press, to Germany’s weekly Die Zeit newspaper and has written for its associate bimonthly newspaper, the African Times. He holds an honours degree in journalism and media studies. Follow him on Twitter at @fingerray.