By Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka
The High Court ruled in a telling judgement last week that Zimbabwe’s public media were biased in favor of ZANU PF in the July 2018 elections and should strive to ensure that they comply with the Constitutional obligation that exhorts them to be impartial and to present divergent views.
It is trite to point out that in every election the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and the Zimbabwe Newspapers parrot the ZANU PF voice even though they are required by the Constitution to be impartial as they are funded by the taxpayer.
Zimpapers and the ZBC are by far the biggest media houses in the country and are by the far the largest media concern in the country, owning several newspapers and electronic broadcasting stations respectively. The two media houses are publicly-owned and they have an obligation to reflect the diversity of the very public that owns them by being impartial so as to ensure that Zimbabweans make informed choices, especially during elections.
At the center of the demands by the MDC and the opposition in general over the years has been has been the implementation of a comprehensive reform agenda, including media reforms. Media reform must ensure that the public media do not embed themselves with ZANU PF but that they become impartial and reflect the diversity of Zimbabweans.
The advent of a new Constitution in 2013, made and affirmed by the people in a referendum, came with clear and explicit provisions that exhorted the public media to conform to the cardinal obligation to impartiality and presentation of divergent views. While the Constitution is clear, the public media have fallen far short when it comes to compliance.
The High Court last week ordered the public media to stick to the sacred strictures of Constitutionalism. In a landmark ruling, High Court judge Justice Joseph Mafusire ruled that Zimpapers and the Zimbabwe Newspapers had failed their Constitutional obligation for impartiality and presentation of divergent views in the election of 2018.
He ordered the public media to exercise impartiality and independence in the editorial content of their broadcasts and other communication. He said they should ensure that their communication do not show bias in favour of one political party and its candidates against the other.
Mafusire’s judgement has been the simple demand of the MDC since 2013; that the public media must remove themselves from the firm clutches of ZANU PF and must conform to the letter and spirit of Constitutionalism.
Even the region, SADC, had given the same order at its summit in Maputo on 15 June 2013 that Zimbabwe must not rush into an election until a conducive environment has been created in the country. However, ZANU PF had contrived the much-vaunted Mawarire case to stampede the nation into a rushed election without the institution of the requisite reforms.
At the center of any truly free and fair election is a neutral and impartial public media that presents all the divergent political views to enable the electorate to make informed choices. However, in Zimbabwe, the public media have thrown best international practice out of then window and have embarrassingly been mere propaganda wings of ZANU PF—in flagrant and brazen violation of the supreme law of the land.
The Constitutional stipulations for impartiality
The Zimbabwe Constitution (2013) is clear that the public media ie. Zimpapers and the ZBC must be impartial and must present divergent views. The ZBC is the country’s biggest broadcaster with a television channel and several radio stations. ZImpapers is the biggest print media house with two daily newspapers and several weekly titles, including provincial newspapers.
Section 61 makes it clear that all broadcasting and other electronic media of communication have to be independent of control by government or any political or commercial interests. Section 61 (4) (b) and (c) of the Constitution are explicit that publicly-owned media of communication, such as the ZBC and Zimpapers, must be impartial and must present divergent views.
However, despite these clear and explicit provisions, the ZBC and Zimpapers have parroted the ZANU PF voice ad nauseam, ad infinitum, as if the sacred law of the land did not even exist. It is pertinent to point out that the 2018 election, to which Justice Mafusire’s judgment makes reference, was held under the so-called new dispensation that has tried to mislead Zimbabweans and the world that government has now adopted a new culture.
Added to the provisions under section 61 is yet another provision under section 155 (2) (d) that specifically urges the State to:
provideall all political parties and candidates contesting an election or participating in a referendum with fair and equal access to electronic and print media.
Thus, the behaviour and deportment of Zimpapers and the ZBC is steeped in clear, explicit and unambiguous Constitutional provisions. What we have seen over the years is a nauseating Zanufication of public media houses funded by the taxpayer despite clear provisions that they must be fair, impartial and must present divergent views.
Justice Mafusire’s ruling has simply echoed these cardinal provisions and going forward, there has to be robust political pressure to ensure compliance with the exhortations of the sacred charter of the land. Any half-hearted, scarfed attempt will not wash.
That is the sole reason why the MDC is now calling for peaceful political pressure to ensure the full implementation of a comprehensive reform agenda that, among other things, complies strictly with the supreme law of the land.
The dictates of regional and international protocols
Zimbabwe is a member of the United Nations, the African Union and SADC. As such, this makes the country a party to protocols such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Windhoek Declaration, the African Charter on Broadcasting and the SADC Protocol on Culture, Information and Sport. These declarations and protocols require that member States and public institutions respect human rights especially freedom of expression, impartiality and reflection of divergent views.
The protocols also call for member States to create an enabling environment for media freedom, impartiality, pluralism and diversity. More importantly, most of the above protocols and declarations set minimum standards for the transformation of State broadcasters into genuine public service broadcasters (PSBs) that are protected against partiality and political interference and whose programming serve not the State but the public interest in its diversified sense.
It is important to state that there is a world of difference between a State broadcaster and a public service broadcaster. A State broadcaster is owned and controlled by the State while a public broadcaster is owned and controlled by the tax-paying public.
In other countries such as South Africa, the board and senior management of a public broadcaster are employed through a public process that involves Parliament while in Zimbabwe, the State has taken over what in essence should be public as opposed to State institutions.
The MDC’s tenuous experience with the public media
The MDC’s experience with the public media has been grueling and tortuous. They have overtly and brazenly supported ZANU PF while excoriating and denigrating other political parties, even after the advent of a new Constitution in 2013 with its clear and explicit provisions urging them to be impartial and to present divergent views.
For example, in its survey of the 2018 elections, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network revealed that 91 percent of the stories in the public media gave positive coverage to ZANU PF, 9 percent of the coverage was neutral while negative coverage was zero. Of the stories that covered the MDC, 89 percent were negative, 11 percent represented neutral coverage while positive coverage of the MDC stood at zero percent.
This represents unadulterated and embarrassing partiality.
During the 2013 election, some of the MDC’s paid adverts were never flighted for no apparent reason. We engaged in running arguments with the ZBC after the adverts we had developed and submitted to the ZBC through our advertising were never flighted. Even though we had paid, they were not flighted and to date, the court case we filed against the ZBC has not been heard!
In some cases, the adverts we wanted flighted on specific days were delayed by several days. I was to learn through my moles at ZBC that the adverts were first submitted to a ZANU PF team then led by Jonathan Moyo to enable them to first develop counter-adverts before our own electronic adverts could be flighted. When they were eventually flighted, the ZBC would then immediately flight a counter Zanu PF advert admonishing the content in our advert , even in instances where our advert was appearing on radio or television for the very first time.
On 5 July 2013, the ZBC covered live ZANU PF’s election launch at Gwanzura stadium in Highfield, Harare. On 6 July 2013, in my capacity as the presidential spokesperson of the MDC and in the spirit of fair and equal coverage, I wrote to the ZBC requesting the same live coverage for our party’s election campaign launch at Rudhaka stadium. The ZBC turned down the request before later agreeing to grant us live coverage provided we paid US$165 000, even though ZANU PF’s campaign launch had been covered for free.
We refused to pay. And we did not receive the live coverage, in blatant violation of the Constitution that calls for fair and equal coverage to all contesting parties and candidates.
Ironically, in its verdict after the 2013 polls, the African Union Election Observer Mission report curiously deemed the poll free, fair and credible even after it had made the following damning assessment in its report:
The AUEM’s emphasis was on the function of the public broadcaster which has a central role in elections in terms of of the AU Charter (2007), to provide a platform for airing political messages or news coverage emanating from all political contestants.
Further, the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent political views and opinions. In this regard, the AUEM noted that the national broadcaster tended to provide live and in-depth coverage largely to s single political party.
The public media’s bias had been a long-drawn story even in previous elections. Justice Mafusire’s ruling is a clarion call that the public media has to be stampeded into abiding by the supreme law of the land.
In 2018, even after the advent of a newConstitution with explicit provisions calling for impartiality, the ZBC and Zimpapers operated simply as ZANU PF megaphones.
The MDC Alliance and President Nelson Chamisa were given scant coverage, if any at all while all prime time viewing on ZBC and acres of space in the Zimpapers titles were accorded to Mr Emerson Mnangagwa and ZANU PF.
This must stop now.
The public media’s embededness in ZANU PF
Not only did the ZBC and Zimpapers give more than ample coverage to ZANU PF and the ZBC. We even had the embarrassing situation in 2018 where journalists on these stables submitted their CVs expressing their wish to contest as candidates in Zanu PF primary elections against the ethics of journalism and in flagrant violation of the Constitution.
Journalists Tendai Munengwa and Andrew Neshamba both of the ZBC and Garikai Mazara of The Sunday Mail submitted their CVs and ran as candidates in Zanu PF primary elections. How could practising journalist claim neutrality in cases where they seek to run as candidates of political parties?
Once you decide to join a political party, you must leave this sacred profession, as I did on 28 October 2005 to join the MDC. That is what ethical and self-respecting journalists do.
The Way forward
The way forward is that we will be doing all it takes to ensure the public media complies with the Constitution. In recent weeks following our appointment as MDC spokespersons, Hon. Fortune Daniel Molokele and I have been moving around various media houses on a familiarization tour. We shall soon be visiting Zimpapers editors and the ZBC management and surely, the Constitutional dictates and Justice Mafusire’s judgment will come up for discussion.
The public media must serve the public in its diversity, without fear or favor. They must not only provide fair and equal coverage but must ensure the expression of divergent views.
Twelve years ago, even before the advent of a new Constitution, the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe chapter exhorted our public media to present divergent views in line with international best practice:
Zimbabwe is a country with many voices and these must. E allowed to express themselves as part of a holistic nation-building project that does not hold one view as better than the rest. The basic principle of election coverage or political reporting is that all contesting parties and candidates must be given equal opportunities to spell out their programmers to the electorate. In line with this principle, we recommend that in the coverage of plebiscites, the ZBC must give reasonable and equal opportunities to all political parties contesting the elections (MISA 2007:7).
Indeed, this is as it should be.
The next few days are going to be decisive in Zimbabwe. The citizens shall be taking robust practical steps to clamour for their rights.
Indeed, we shall be peacefully and constitutionally instituting various methods of political pressure to encourage dialogue on a host of issues, including a comprehensive reform agenda in the country.
We want genuine reforms, not a half-hearted scarfed attempt to hoodwink Zimbabweans and the international community.
Mugabe may have gone into the political sunset but has Mugabeism as a political culture has remained!
They lied to the world that they were reforming POSA but the Maintenance of Public Order Bill is just but a POSA in a scarf!
Scarfed reforms will not wash.
Justice Mafusire’s ruling exhorting Zimpapers and the ZBC to bury their habit and to comply with the Constitution is a breath of fresh air.
There used to be great men of the pen in the public media, great journalists such as Geoff Nyarota and the late Willie Dzawanda Musarurwa who understood the true role of the public media.
In one of his stinging editorials, Musarurwa wrote in a Sunday Mail editorial:
A psychophantic press, which showers government leaders with undeserved and worshipful adulation, is as good as Judas Iscariot. It eventually betrays those that it flatters and lulls them into a stupor of complacence and a false sense of infallibility.
Rest in peace, gallant warrior of the pen!
Luke BatsiraiTamborinyoka is the deputy national spokesperson of the MDC. He writes here in his official capacity. You can interact with him on his facebook page or on the twitter handle @ luke-tambo.