Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Zim media remain polarised, unbalanced

By Maxwell Sibanda

Despite the ethical and legal obligation to be impartial in their coverage of electoral processes, the media in Zimbabwe remain polarised and unbalanced in their electoral coverage and reportage, media practitioners’ contend.

A newspaper vendor in Zimbabwe
A newspaper vendor in Zimbabwe

The practitioners are of the opinion that while the Electoral Law deals with issues of equal access to the media by all participants, there is no effective enforcement mechanism. And there is no clear way of monitoring compliance and dealing with breaches of these requirements.

They called on the Zimbabwe Election Commission to rigorously enforce the relevant regulations of the Electoral Act to ensure the compliance of the State media during elections as well as to afford contesting political parties’ equitable and balanced access.

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Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) director Rindai Chipfunde-Vava believes both the publicly owned and private media have shown tendencies to be biased along political party lines when covering rallies and when reporting on critical issues like BVR, voters’ roll and ballot paper layout and design.

“The State media in particular, ZBC gives live coverage to the ruling party’s rallies while other political parties’ rallies are covered as news in brief. In addition to live coverage, they give Zanu PF airplay on both news and current affairs, for example after the 8pm news bulletin, certain events are covered as a repeat programme for an hour i.e. State functions that are sometimes turned into campaign rallies.

“ZBC main news actualities bulletin will give the MDC and other political parties space as the top story mostly when castigating their campaign rallies and manifestos.
It is, however, important to note improvements by the media especially on radio and television in providing platforms such as The Candidate on ZTV where political contestants from across the political divide to engage with the electorate.

“The private media’s election reportage and coverage tends to be biased towards the opposition parties with Zanu PF mostly receiving negative coverage and getting front page coverage when being castigated.

“The proliferation of social media platforms has provided an alternative source of information on electoral processes. However, a lot of false information has also been peddled on the platforms,” said Chipfunde-Vava.

She added that though the media has played a key role in voter education and electoral information, there is need for more voter education on key issues such as the secrecy of the vote, non-violent campaigns and tolerance of divergent political views.

“The media also has a critical role in creating awareness on essential components of the electoral process such as conflict resolution and the provision of impartial timely electoral information. It must provide platforms for educating voters about the fundamentals of free, fair and credible elections, the right to cast a secret ballot and not to be subjected to undue influence or pressure in relation to casting votes.

“There is need for balanced coverage of electoral process on both the positives and irregularities that may arise and in addition, the public and private media should not prejudge the election but continue to monitor the political environment and only conclude after elections have been held if they were free, fair and credible.”

Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) director Lofty Dube said the media has played its key mandates effectively.

“In the first stage of the election, the pre-election stage that is to inform and educate and even entertain with stories they have published they have done that well from BVR stage, election proclamation, nomination, campaigns, analysis of manifestoes but in a holistic manner the media has been openly biased, while certain sections have been unprofessional in their reportage.

“Sections of the media have been blatantly biased and have been unprofessional in their reportage of the electoral process, while the politicians have not communicated extreme hate messages against each other.

“It is the media in most cases who have taken it upon themselves to caricature political participants and they painstakingly outdo politicians in spewing hate messages and this exposes an element of unprofessionalism on the part of the media,” said Dube.

Election Resource Centre director Tawanda Chimhini said the coverage of elections this time compared to previous elections has definitely improved.

“The quality of scrutiny and analysis of election information considering the legal framework, administrative practices and the political environment reflects an improved understanding of electoral issues.

“Follow up on issues had also greatly improved compared to previous elections. The media has also improved their pursuit of issues especially at press conference which reflects improved research on issues,” said Chimhini.

He added that going forward it remains crucial for the media to sustain its scrutiny of election issues not just for purposes of reporting and informing citizens on key processes but to hold responsible authorities accountable.

“An emphasis by the media on qualitative aspects of the electoral cycle would go a long way in promote conduct by all stakeholders that is consistent with the constitution, our own laws and international standards.

“Going onto polling days and immediately after elections the media should remain a credible source of election information able to objectively support a constitutional, free and fair election,” said Chimhini.

Media consultant Koliwe Majama said the media has largely focused on the ‘main political parties’ and prominent figures in the race, and even then there has been very little ‘critical’ focus on the manifestos.

“This has shortchanged the voter in many regards. Of particular note is the fact that for particularly radio, coverage has had to be paid for as Zimbabwe has mainly commercial radio stations.

“This is when we remind legislators that they must open up the space for more people centric and community owned media so that critical public information is accessible without a charge,” said Majana.

Tabani Moyo, MISA-Zimbabwe director said Section 160J of Zimbabwe’s Electoral Act states that during an election period, broadcasters and print publishers must ensure that all political parties and candidates are treated equitably in their news media.

“This position is reiterated in Article 17(3) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance which calls for the state broadcaster to provide a balanced platform for all competing parties and alternative voices.

“Before and after the 2013 general elections, concerns were raised about the public broadcaster’s highly partisan coverage of the ruling political party to the exclusion of opposition political parties and other dissenting voices and views.

“This state of affairs informed the AUEOM’s recommendation that: Zec scrupulously enforces the relevant regulations of the Electoral Act to afford alternative voices and all political parties equitable access at all times during elections.

“Five years on, ZEC has not made any tangible efforts to ensure that political parties will be treated equally and equitably during this year’s election period.

“The AUEOM’s 2013 observation that the national broadcaster tended to provide live and in-depth coverage largely to a single political party, remains true to this day,” said Moyo.

Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations national coordinator, Vivian Marara said the more things have changed the more they have remained the same.

“With public media, coverage is still skewed towards Zanu PF especially looking at the news content of ZBC which is favouring the ruling party.

“Superficial efforts have been made to cover other political parties, however the extent, depth and manner of coverage is not at par with Zanu PF. ZBC is to an extent doing Public Relations for Zanu PF.

“What can be improved going forward in the last campaign weeks is the need for balance and fairness in news reports with little or no editorialising. News content should report things as they are and leave citizens to make their own choices,” said Marara.

Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) programmes manager Nigel Nyamutumbu said on one hand, there is notable improvement in so far as how the media has performed in the coverage of the elections, particularly if you consider that most political parties participating in this plebiscite have been covered in one way or the other.

“However, the media has struggled to fulfil its democratic obligation to comprehensively cover the elections due to a myriad of challenges confronting the sector.

“The state and the ruling party, if there is a distinction, have captured the public media and have exerted influence on the private media to an extent that stifles the practice of journalism. “Moreover, the legal and policy environment is not conducive for the media to operate in as much as there are concerns on the safety of journalists.

“All these factors, compounded with sustainability challenges have restricted the media to comprehensively cover the elections,” said Nyamutumbu.

Media Monitors’ executive Patience Zirima said so far, the media has not given adequate coverage to all parties in news or current affairs programmes.

“Advertising is even more skewed in favour of Zanu PF. This may be for future elections but there is a challenge where Zanu PF seems the only party able to advertise as they have the resources to do so.

“The law and various policies should not give the incumbent unfair advantage as there has been so far. Zanu PF has access to the State media both print and electronic and influences their reporting, as well as being able to afford the advertising rates required.

“It’s unfortunately an unfair election as far as the media is concerned and the challenge is structural, legal and in practice,” said Zirima.

Veteran journalist John Masuku believes the media is still generally polarised. “Zanu PF is benefitting from public media bias. MDC rallies and candidates have very little coverage – something to use for argument sake when confronted.

“Public media still far from best practice witnessed in UK, USA and SA elections. Lots of time is also wasted on insignificant parties. Social Media is playing a significant role by showing what is hidden from the public domain so that people can make informed decisions.

“Private media sometimes struggle to be balanced being more sympathetic to MDC Alliance. A lot of issues raised through campaigns still need to be interrogated, but some journalists seem not to read and research widely,” said Masuku.

Freedom of expression advocate Nhlanhla Ngwenya is of the opinion that partisan public media coverage has become synonymous with Zimbabwean elections.

“In each successive election the complaints remain the same and observers make the same recommendations but nothing changes.

“Like in previous elections, the elections management body tasked with monitoring the media and ensure fair and professional coverage has remained reticent.

“In the previous elections it bizarrely sought to normalize the public media’s partisan reportage by saying that was atoned by the private media. This is despite the fact that the two have different roles and responsibilities not only in an election but the general coverage of issues even outside elections,” said Ngwenya.

He added that this calls for governance and operation reforms at the public media that will insulate them from political capture and guarantee their independence as enshrined in the constitution. “Zimbabweans should continue to fight and reclaim their media, ZBC and Zimpapers!”

Zimbabwe Editors Forum national coordinator Njabulo Ncube believes there has been overwhelming copy on the electoral processes, the electoral cycle, the election management body, controversies around Zec management of the polls among other elections issues such as political violence and alleged vote rigging.

“This copy has been rich qualitatively but poor quantitatively in regarding for instance how the alleged rigging is likely to take place or is manifesting itself.

“While the media has been seized with electoral story, unfortunately we still have tendencies of partisan coverage, which is the public or state media rallying behind the ruling party and the private media providing largely favourable coverage to the opposition.

“This is sad because it speaks to the old situation of media polarisation even though the situation has in some respects improved with the state media on rare occasions giving the leading opposition MDC Alliance presidential guided coverage of his rallies,” said Ncube.

He added that going forward journalists must remember their role is to give their audiences factual, accurate and balance news and information in an impartial way.

“As Zinef we urged the media and journalists to stick to the basics: be professional and ethical. The election will come and go but remember the Internet does not forget: the digital footprints of unprofessionalism on the net will continue to haunt us even to our graves.

“There is an urgent need to restore sanity in Zimbabwe’s journalism not just towards the poll but beyond the elections. There is so much hate in our journalism as journalists stampede to promote their political horses,” said Moyo. Daily News.