By Njabulo Ncube
The resurgence of the opposition and a vocal civil society has seen the country’s media sector being a fiercely contested terrain, with the traditional media, rightly or wrongly, being accused of losing focus and trashing the basic tenets of the journalism profession every time when Zimbabwe is due for elections.
While the Constitution, adopted in March 2013, guarantees freedom of the media, freedom of expression and access to information, editors and by extension their subordinate journalists, have been found wanting in grasping electoral processes and issues around elections, rendering the mainstream media unable to report authoritatively and serving as unreliable sources of information
Reports by the Sadc Observer Mission on Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential run-off elections, the African Union (AU) Commission mission on Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections and the Electoral Forum of Sadc countries Election Observer mission all cast aspersions on the media’s coverage of past elections.
For instance, the Sadc Observer Mission, in its statement on the outcome of the 2008 presidential run-off, pointed out the “one-sided coverage in content of one candidate on the part of the State media, print and electronic.”
It further noted that “no advertisements of the opposition party were carried out”, concluding that the process leading up to the presidential run-off elections held on June 27, 2008 did not conform to Sadc principles and guidelines governing democratic elections in which the media is supposed to be impartial.
Regarding the 2013 harmonised polls, the Election Forum of Sadc Countries Election Observer Mission also raised a red-flag about the conduct of the media, saying that it had noted with concern that in spite of the “prescribed monitoring mechanisms ensuring, fair and balanced coverage” to all contestants, “coverage given to political parties and their candidates were done in an open partisan and biased manner by both the public and the private media”.
It further observed that the public media, both print and electronic, predominately gave coverage to the activities, rallies and views of candidates from the ruling party, Zanu PF while the private media, on the other hand, was observed to have been generally biased and sympathetic towards the opposition, especially MDC-T.
“Such kind of coverage undoubtedly compromises the guiding principles of equality, equity and fairness as enshrined in Zimbabwe’s domestic laws and some of the international, regional and sub-regional instruments it signed up.”
The AU Election Observer Mission (AUEOM) report on the 2013 elections was also scathing on media coverage of the polls, noting that the media environment in Zimbabwe was highly polarised “regardless of its classification”.
Whereas the AUEOM recognised the independence of the media to editorially determine the content of their broadcast or other communication, as provided by the new constitution of Zimbabwe, it observed that both the privately owned and State media establishments were evidently biased in their reportage.
The AU observer mission had unflattering remarks on the coverage of the polls by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation noting that “the public broadcaster tended to provide live and in-depth coverage largely to a single political party”.
The absence of female and youth voices in the reportage of the Zimbabwe polls have also been highlighted by observers, in a country where women and the youth constitute about 60% of the population.
The issues of polarisation in the media, the publication of hate-speech, inflammatory language in the media, and media capture speaks volumes about the dearth of ethics and professionalism in the mainstream and alternative media, amid allegations of corruption and bribery among journalists.
In its report in 2012 titled Media Women Representation in Politics, the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ) noted gaps in the coverage of women particularly during elections, specifically noting the casual treatment of electoral issues, which raises a red flag over the lack of female voices in media coverage despite women constituting more than 50,9% of the country’s 14 million citizens as of the latest census figures.
As the country trudges towards the 2018 polls, the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum (Zinef), an organisation of editors drawn from both the public and private media, who subscribe to freedom of the media, freedom of expression and access to information, has moved with speed to try and capacitate editors and other senior executives in mainstream mass media to move beyond having a rudimentary understanding of electoral processes and elections themselves.
Zinef, with help of media monitors, formerly MMPZ, and in close collaboration with the International Media Support (IMS), under the auspices of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe’s, has designed and is implementing the Zimbabwe Editors Elections Strategies Project.
The overall objectives of this 15-month project are to enhance the capacity of editors in the mainstream, and alternative media to report electoral and governance matters in a more articulate, comprehensive and inclusive manner and restore the credibility of mainstream media.
This action is expected to enhance the scope and depth of analysis of electoral issues in the coverage of news and electoral reportage on mainstream media platforms.
The project entails carrying out coaching clinics, national election and stakeholder conferences and breakfast meetings targeting editors and key actors.
The activities have been on the roll since November 2017 with Zinef holding the first national editors’ pre-election conference in Kadoma on December 16, 2017, culminating in the endorsement of the Kadoma Declaration.
Editors’ experiences show that introspecting on key electoral issues, including but not limited to voter registration, the media regulatory framework, media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information helps in mobilising citizens to participate in electoral processes.
On the other hand, asking critical questions about elections is vital in ensuring accountability and transparency.
Mentoring should address one-sided reportage, media accountability, polarisation, hate-language, hate-speech as well as standing up to political interference by the political players at a time the media is undermined by allegations of capture by elites, including business.
While the mentoring is also intended to familiarise editors with the requisite electoral laws such as the Electoral Act, among others, the Sadc principles and guidelines governing democratic elections, it would raise awareness and conceptual clarity about the nitty-gritties of other electoral processes
The interface during dialogues and breakfast meetings would enable editors to report responsibly, fairly and in a balanced manner that is inclusive of all the views of citizens without fear or favour.
The meetings are not only offering editors’ opportunities to interact with citizens and other stakeholders related to the elections and other electoral processes but enable the editors to be able to write in-depth, thought-provoking and insightful editorials as well as report in an authoritative manner.
The interactions should help restore credibility of the mainstream media in the eyes of the generality of the citizens and other stakeholders in the advent of allegations of media capture and divisions in newsrooms along political lines.