It may be too soon to celebrate the possibility of farreaching media transformation under a multi-party government in Zimbabwe. It is, however, clear that change of sorts is inevitable.
As in the case of most transitions, power will be lost and won, loyalties will shift, new alignments and realignments will emerge in political and corporate hierarchies. For journalists – especially in the highly polarised society that is Zimbabwe – a careful and complex negotiation will be required.
Consider the state media empire comprising Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers) and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH). Since independence from Britain in 1980, journalism practice within these media groups has been in loyal service of the political elite. The world was framed in binaries of friends and enemies of the ruling Zanu PF party. The state media has known no middle ground. Reporting has been construed as a continuation of the liberation struggle, even though the party has been in power for 28 years.
Even after 9/15 – the date of the signing of the memorandum of agreement between Robert Mugabe and his arch rival Morgan Tsvangirai – the state media could not bring itself to accept that Tsvangirai could be reported on in terms other than the usual frame of ignorant Western puppet and sell-out. It reported on ongoing political negotiations in terms of an existential tussle between “Cde Mugabe” – signifying “friend” or part of “us” – and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), representing the “other”.
Regardless of which party controls the Ministry of Information (or whatever new name it may be given) in the multiparty government, the state media will have to change. It will not be possible to selectively cover the activities of ministers from Zanu PF alone, who will constitute less than 50 percent of cabinet.
It is important that the state media begin to shift from the deferential mode of journalism toward a robust and critical paradigm. This will be a whole new culture for the state media, and it will not be easy. The easier route would have been to simply switch loyalties to new masters, as happened in 1980.
But then a multi-party government will not have outright new masters. The media must therefore take advantage of the likely struggles for media dominance by political parties in government to subject each of the political players to profound scrutiny.
It is not just the public media that needs to change. For a long time the private press has been the source of critical and investigative journalism in Zimbabwe, against a litany of legal and non-legal odds imposed by the state. Partly as a result of the state’s belligerence against critical journalism and partly as a result of the deterioration of the relationship between the state and big business following the controversial land reform programme in 2000, the private press became embedded with opposition politics in the country. (The decline of agriculture, which accompanied the land seizures, struck a blow to big business. At the same time, the commercial private press generally supported big business and the cause of commercial farmers.
The state branded both big business and the private media as agents of regime change.)
Where the state media echoed His Master’s Voice, the private press became the natural political tribunes for the MDC, with few exceptions and variations. Everything to do with Zanu PF was reported on in negative terms, sometimes quite unfairly.
As in the case of the state media, the private press will have to deal with the inevitability of change. It cannot simply select to report on the activities of a section of government and ignore the rest.
Furthermore, the private press should consider broadening its reach to include rural areas, where 75 percent of the country lives, and where it could not reach previously for fear of intimidation by ruling party thugs.
A functional multi-party government in Harare will also present several possibilities for media entrepreneurs from both Zimbabwe, Southern Africa and beyond.
According to the memorandum of agreement that forms the basis for the government, the licensing of private broadcast media will be considered a key task for the government.
Although the memorandum insists that such licensing will be done within the legal framework provided for by the draconian Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the fact that it calls for the speeding up of the licensing process is important.
It is highly likely that both pieces of legislation will be amended within the lifespan of the new government to deal with controversial provisions such as compulsory registration of journalists and media houses, high requirements for local content and stringent requirements for foreign shareholding.
For investors in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, the privatisation of Zimpapers should probably be considered a real possibility. The MDC has called for the complete privatisation of all media, including the state broadcaster, something Zanu PF is most certainly going to resist, especially with regard to ZBH.
A likely scenario will be the sale of the state’s 51 percent stake in Zimpapers to private investors and the transformation of ZBH into a public service broadcaster along the lines of the SABC. Because ZBH is terminally broke and operates obsolete equipment, it is highly likely that its transformation will include a degree of public-private participation.
The private media sector will also need massive investment. A sector that fell victim to authoritarian state media policy and economic decline, the mainstream private media in Zimbabwe now consists of only three weekly newspapers which circulate within the major cities.
If the new government adopts a progressive media policy regime, the areas of community radio, community newspapers and commercial radio are likely to be attractive investment choices. A commercial daily newspaper or two would also be a real possibility, given the phenomenal success of the Daily News, which the state closed down in September 2003.
Although it expresses the parties’ commitment to freedom of information, the memorandum of agreement is silent on how government will proceed with regard to related sectors of telecommunication and information technology. It is not clear whether the (extremely inefficient) state-owned fixedline operator, TelOne, will be privatised or commercialised, or whether the regulatory authority, the Posts and Telecommunications Regulating Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) will license another operator. The IT sector, currently tightly controlled by security laws, is also a potential growth area should a multi-party government relax the laws.
The winds of change are certainly blowing in Harare. They carry with them the uncertainties of the present and the possibilities of the future. For journalism practice, it cannot be business as usual.
Outmoded reporting attitudes may have to give way. Media entrepreneurs could do well to take the leaf from investors in finance, services and mining, who have maintained a steadfast presence in Zimbabwe throughout the crisis. The possibilities are real.
Dr Wallace Chuma is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town. He previously reported for the Daily News in Harare and edited the weekly Zimbabwe Mirror.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (December 2008).