Opinion by Nhlanhla Ngwenya
As some Zimbabweans engage in muted isolated celebrations and others heal from the devastating heartbreak — with measurable shock being the common denominator — it is time people take stock of the past elections to draw hard lessons for the future.
The media is no exception.
It is crucial that the media, which tends to focus on other sectors of society, turn the spotlight on themselves for once so as to identify their strengths and the unflattering points of their deficiencies in covering the past elections.
Although a frank undertaking of such an exercise will expose some brazen and embarrassing violations of basic standards of journalism, it is essential that the media self-introspect in order to repair dents to their credibility caused by some reckless and excitable coverage of the past elections.
They need to draw lessons from the past so they become a vital cog in informing Zimbabweans under the authority of a new government.
It will also restore as well as build public confidence in the media’s role as a genuine public sphere in which members of the public can debate, seek and express their views on pertinent subjects and events taking place in the country.
And this goes for both private and state-controlled media. Theoretically, the media should provide direct and indirect access to contestants; inform their publics; examine the electoral process; act as the public sphere and a watchdog thereby helping voters make informed choices.
Generally, they sparsely fulfilled each of these roles while devoting much of the space to rehashing official statements on the country’s preparations for elections; meekly following politicians’ footsteps and in the process reducing themselves to unquestioning loudspeakers of their preferred parties and candidates.
While it is no secret that the public media unashamedly abdicated their public service mandate and chose to be slavish megaphones of Zanu PF, the private media was equally at fault in several instances. Resultantly, a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the management and administration of the electoral process largely remained yearning for attention.
True, the private media has the licence to endorse their preferred political party or a candidate in elections, but they still need to do so within the parameters of professional conduct and remain responsible to their readers or audiences. This entails providing them with a candid assessment of the electoral process, which would empower them to make informed choices, fully aware of all at stake.
Instead of doing this, there were some media retreating to self-created islands of fantasy in supporting their preferred candidates, which was completely detached from unpleasant realities on the ground. In so doing, they created unbelievable thresholds of expectation whose devastating results are evident among many Zimbabweans.
An impression was created that despite clear indications of a well-orchestrated plan to manipulate the process and engineer a certain outcome, popularity of individuals and the general public mood was going to decide the day.
Instead of trying to unravel for their audiences’ benefit the real reasons behind Zanu PF’s push for a snap election, some media simply amplified the party’s opponents expressing confidence they would triumph regardless. This, even when the odds were clearly staked against them.
Consequently, there was no coherent interrogation and stitching together of the court’s helpful comments on the “Harare man” Jealousy Mawarire’s initial court application seeking the court’s intervention in the proclamation of elections date; Zanu PF’s unreserved compliance with the court ruling on elections date when its disregard of previous court judgments is well-documented.
Also missing was a lucid analysis of the underlying intentions of the heavy push for the subversion of a clearly spelt out elections road map; resistance to have an open and transparent voter registration exercise and an audit of the voters’ roll; Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa’s failure to robustly present government’s application seeking an extension of the elections date as per Sadc advice; among a host of other schemes meant to catalyse a smash-and-grab poll.
These put together with inexplicable display of confidence of victory by Zanu PF, which ran until voting day, would have shown that the party had something up its sleeves and was bent on raising so much dust to blur visibility on the administration of the process; side with chaos and then strike where confusion festered.
The media should have given the public this reality check even as they tried to motivate their audiences to vote. But as has been the case with other elections, attendance figures at campaign rallies were then used to bolster the naive position that the show of public support would render irrelevant the controversial administration of the process in the determination of the outcome.
Zimbabwean voters were thus bombarded with contests of figures ranging from a handful to over a 100 000, depending on each of the media’s preferred party or candidate. The fact that attendance at rallies did not automatically translate into assured votes was lost to some news outlets. There are several reasons people attend rallies.
Apart from genuine and registered party supporters others attend to witness the spectacle and for entertainment value. Some attended to kill time especially in a country with high unemployment rates while others were attracted by freebies they got such as food, t-shirts and caps, which are precious goodies for the majority living on less than a US dollar a day.
So obsessed with propping up their preferred candidates that some media could hardly be distinguished from propaganda desks of the contestants. While all this was happening, there was precious little coherent examination of the parties’ manifestos, credentials and quality of their candidates as well as their internal weaknesses and their likely impact on their chances of victory.
For instance, there was no holistic attempt to assess if the MDCs had rebuilt structures in some provinces dismantled by the 2008 electoral violence. Neither was there any assessment of the value addition of some coalitions that were formed.
Nor was there a comprehensive discussion on the de-motivating potential of the primary elections, which saw the creation of sacred cows in parties who were uncontested despite little evidence of their delivery in 13 years they were in parliament.
Also, there was no cogent weighing of the logic of legitimising a flawed process within the imposed timeframes even as Sadc raised concerns over the timelines and the country’s state of preparedness for holding credible elections.
Questions on whether Sadc would entertain complaints after polling when its counsel was openly defied by all parties remained unanswered. These are just but a few cases in point.
Some of these issues only found more space after the polls as the media sought to diagnose reasons behind the outcome. But that was a bit late as Zimbabweans needed honest early warning signs of tough electoral realities ahead of them.
As the media battles for laws that will safeguard their security and freedom in line with the new constitution, it can only be hoped that the recent elections will provide long-lasting lessons that will engender growth in the media and cement their position as an indispensable Fourth Estate.
With the necessary legislative safeguards and frank peer conversations, the future can only be bright.
Nhlanhla Ngwenya is the director of Misa-Zimbabwe and this article was initially published in the Zimbabwe Independent