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African Media Barometer - Zimbabwe 2012
Fesmedia Africa
December 12, 2012

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Summary

Since February 2009 Zimbabwe has been ruled by an "inclusive government" formed by the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This new government was based on a "Global Political Agreement" (GPA) which formally recognised the "importance of freedom of expression and the role of the media in a multi-party democracy".

Three years on the country remains deeply polarised between the two major political forces and the struggle for political power between them is continuing as Zimbabwe heads for elections which are supposed to take place at the end of 2012 or in 2013. This struggle has been hampering necessary reforms in many political and social sectors while some progress has been made in regard to the economy. Despite this continuing stagnation the political climate has relaxed a little over the last two years since the AMB in 2010 and there are signs of progress in the media sector which seem to have led to a slightly more optimistic mood. Two years ago the market was dominated by government-controlled newspapers. Since then formerly banned newspapers have re-appeared and new publications have hit the streets. Two private radio stations have been licensed - but still have to go on air. The self-regulatory mechanisms of the (private) media have been strengthened.

These apparently positive developments, however, have their downsides, showing the deep contradictions in present day Zimbabwe.

All old, new and revived publications had to be registered with a statutory Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC). When the Commission was formed in 2009, media organisations were opposed to it because, as a statutory body, it contradicts the principle of self-regulation of the media. For the time being, however, media organisations are tolerating its existence "grudgingly" as the only available legal means to get new print media on the streets. They also had to put up with the expectation that journalists apply for accreditation with the ZMC if they want to work effectively and gain access to Parliament, public bodies, national and state events.

At the time of the panel meeting, the Zimbabwe Media Commission was planning to set up a statutory media council. This media council is to run parallel to the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe which provides members of the public with an opportunity to lodge their complaints against the media without resorting to legal redress. Media organisations have stated categorically that they will not participate in such a statutory media council. The ZMC is planning to go ahead regardless, whether they are supported by the media or not.

Another body whose legitimacy is contested not only by media organisations but also by parts of the government Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ). The current board was appointed unilaterally by the Minister of Media, Information and Publicity and is dominated by the minister's political party ZANU PF. There are frequent calls by the MDC to revisit this process and to constitute a legitimate Authority. All deadlines set for these demands have long since passed and the minister has publicly declared that he will not reconstitute the contested media bodies. The BAZ has granted licences to two radio stations, one being part of the Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers) stable which runs pro-government newspapers and the other has been linked with ZANU PF.

No community radio has been licensed although there are quite a number of initiatives across the country ready to go on air. They have to wait for the BAZ to invite applications for licences - but these invitations have not been coming forward. This could be taken as an indication of the mistrust within government circles, perhaps due to a suspicion that community radio stations have a political agenda not sympathetic to one of the political parties in government (ZANU PF). As a result the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) maintains its monopoly over the airwaves. Attempts to transform the state broadcaster (if any) have stalled. Its current board was announced by the Minister of Information in September 2009. It is not truly representative of society at large and members will toe the line of those who appointed them.

The same goes for Zimpapers, the company which publishes newspapers such as The Herald, and which is majority-owned by government. The current board was appointed in September 2009 by the same minister, again very much to the dismay of the MDC who complained that they had not been consulted.

Efforts to reform legislation related to the media have also largely failed. The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act 2004 makes it an offence to "insult" the President - dozens of people have been charged under this provision The Access to Information and Privacy Bill (AIPPA) which requires journalists to register remains in place. The same law regulates access to information held by public bodies and allows heads of government departments to handle requests for information at their own discretion and refuse access to documents if a release would not be in the "public interest".

These contradictions, existing legislation and uncertainty about the future are the causes why freedom of expression is certainly not being practised without fear in Zimbabwe. Old draconian pieces of legislation have been used to arrest citizens and journalists for the flimsiest of reasons. To a certain extent these actions have subdued Zimbabweans and they tend to act with caution.

Some journalists take the risk of writing stories that they realise might upset the powers that be. They know that they are treading on dangerous ground if they write about the president, the police, the army, cabinet meetings and certain individuals in positions of power.

The threats to freedom of expression increase in severity prior to elections when the polarisation of Zimbabwean society becomes very visible. People aligned to a certain party or civic society organisation will refuse to show any public display of their preferred choice in an area regarded as the stronghold of the opposing party. Intimidation, threats and assaults increase in volume and the majority of people live in fear.

On the other hand, there are a plethora of political parties and civil society organisations working in the country, private newspapers carrying articles critical of the government are sold on the streets - all indications that there are windows of opportunity for freedom of expression.

The media are not always using these windows professionally. While some media houses are stable and try hard to ensure information is confirmed, facts are checked and figures are accurate, there are other sections of the media where there is no such thoroughness and no accuracy at all.

Activism over the years has blurred the lines for journalists, many of whom are reporting from a biased perspective because they feel "they are still in the struggle". Journalists attending political events will write from a ZANU PF or MDC perspective depending on who they write for and the accurate story will be somewhere in between the two versions.

This unprofessional and unethical behaviour can be attributed to a number of things: laziness, inadequate training, poor salaries, corruption, shortage of skilled staff in the newsrooms - all of these are putting the experienced staff under constant pressure.

All in all, Zimbabwe is on a path of uncertainty. There is frustration in view of the snail's pace at which changes are being effected and the constant set-backs. But there is also a sense of hope that things are improving - slowly but, so people hope, steadily.

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