By Luke Tamborinyoka
As Zimbabwe stands on the cusp of crucial by-elections and a watershed plebiscite in 2023, it is important that media reforms be implemented as part of a comprehensive reform package that must equally ensure the public media conform to the cardinal Constitutional obligation for impartiality and presentation of divergent views.
The ZBC and the Zim papers group form part of the country’s public media that are funded by the taxpayer and have a higher obligation to comply with the Constitution and to prudently and impartially serve the diverse spectrum of Zimbabweans.
Historically, the public media have operated as an extension of Zanu PF, dismally failing to give equal coverage to other political parties, a development that has become patently illegal with the advent of the new Constitution in May 2013.
Yet notwithstanding the new Constitution’s explicit provisions demanding that the public media be impartial, flight divergent views and grant equal coverage to all parties contesting in elections, the ZBC and Zimpapers have continued to behave as if the supreme charter of the of the land did not even exist.
Only recently, the public media willingly became Zanu PF’s propaganda megaphone by invading the privacy of Harare West MP Joanah Mamombe all in a vain hatchet job to lie to the world that she and her two colleagues had not been abducted.
For purposes of this instalment, it is pertinent to state that in July 2019, the High Court handed down a landmark judgement that pronounced 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 are by the far the largest media concerns in the country, owning several newspapers and electronic broadcasting stations between them.
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 centre of the demands by the MDC and Zimbabweans in general ahead of next elections is the strident call for 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 comply with the Constitution to truly become impartial and reflect the diversity of the very Zimbabweans who fund them and who they ought to prudently serve.
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 year 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 others.
Mafusire’s judgement reflects 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 had been created in the country.
The summit unambiguously urged the implementation of reforms, including media reforms, as a prerequisite for the 2013 plebiscite to be held credibly. 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 centre 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 the 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, as well as a radio station. Zimpapers are also among the frontrunners for a TV license if current indications are anything to go by.
Section 61 of the Constitution 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. In fact the regime has publicly committed itself to implementing a basket of reforms but current indications are that there are better chances of the Pope getting pregnant than anything like that happening.
Added to the provisions under section 61 is yet another provision under section 155 (2) (d) that specifically urges the State to:
provide 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 urging peaceful but robust political pressure to ensure the full implementation of a comprehensive reform package that, among other things, ensures strict compliance 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. 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.
In this respect, the Mass Media Trust used to own all Zimpapers titles on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe. But the MMT was unprocedurally disbanded so that government could have direct, unfettered control to achieve partisan ends.
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. And the ZBC and Zimpapers are public-owned and not State – owned media houses. Or at least they are supposed to be.
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, in this case Zimpapers and the ZBC.
The MDC’s tenuous experience with the public media
The MDC’s experience with the public media has been grueling and tortuous. The public media, ie the ZBC and Zimpapers, 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 of Zanu PF 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 agency 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 campaign 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 in Marondera. 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 (AUEOM) 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 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 a single political party , Zanu PF .
Surprisingly, even after making this poignant observation of partisanship about the country’s sole broadcaster, the African Union still branded the 2013 polls as having been free, fair and credible.
The public media’s bias had been a long-drawn story even in previous elections. Ahead of the next plebiscite, the public media have to be stampeded into abiding by the supreme law of the land, whatever it may take. After all, one of our key five fights is defending the Constitution and Constitutionalism.
In 2018, even after the advent of a new Constitution with its 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 Emmerson 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 in these stables submitted their CVs expressing their wish to contest as candidates in Zanu PF primary elections against the ethics of journalism.
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 when I left my Chief News Editor’s role with The Daily _News_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. When we served as MDC spokespersons, Fortune Daniel Molokele and I moved around various media houses, including the ZBC where we engaged them on a host of issues, including the unambiguous Constitutional dictates for impartiality and presentation of divergent views. They pretended to listen, but it was clear that compliance would take more than meetings and sermons.
The public media must simply 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 be 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 programmes 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.
We are on the brink of a decisive moment 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 the addressing of 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. No to these feeble attempts to manicure and pedicure repressive laws in the name of reform.
They lied to the world that they were reforming POSA but the Maintenance of Public Order Bill turned out to be just but another POSA in a scarf!
Scarfed reforms will not wash. They are now claiming to be repealing AIPPA but the successor Bills are just as repressive, if not worse. As the late Eddison Zvobgo would say, the proposed legislation is bristling with arrows aimed at the very heart of freedom.
And as we have always done, we are about to lose an opportunity to usher in multiple voices in the media if the charade at the TV licences hearings is anything to go by. The usual suspects will definitely get the licences. Sameness is not diversity.
Like POLAD, it’s all about surrogates, about acolytes. Supa Mandiwanzira, Zimpapers and others closely linked to Zanu PF are likely to be granted TV licenses. It does not help matters that it is the same characters were given community radio licenses. The only difference is the addition of those in the so-called private press who now appear to have sold out their hearts and souls to the regime!
Talk about the POLAD-isation of the country’s media terrain!
However , the pith of this instalment is that the ZBC and Zimpapers are compelling cases for Constitutional compliance and comprehensive reform.
And yet 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 that true role of the public media was to tell truth to power.
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!
In the meantime, we shall do all we can, including engaging in robust political pressure, to ensure comprehensive reforms are implemented and that the public media strictly comply with the letter and spirit of the dictates of the supreme law of the land.
We owe it to ourselves and to future generations!
Luke Tamborinyoka is the Deputy Secretary for Presidential Affairs in the MDC Alliance led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa . He is a multiple award-winning journalist who was once elected and served as the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists.
Tamborinyoka also served as spokesperson for almost 10 years to the country’s democracy icon , Morgan Tsvangirai , until the latter’s death in 2018 . He is an ardent political scientist who won the Book Prize for Best Student when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Political Science at the University of Zimbabwe.
You can interact with him on Facebook or on the twitter handle @ luke-tambo .