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  • Index of results, reports, press stmts and articles on March 31 2005 General Election - post Mar 30

  • Democratising access to the media in the 2005 elections in Zimbabwe
    Bertha Chiroro, Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA)
    Extracted from Election Talk No. 20
    May 10, 2005

    The struggle for a much more pluralistic society in Zimbabwe has moved from a different magnitude - starting with the demand for a new constitution, a transparent electoral process and access to the media by all political parties. In the 2005 elections, the opposition clamoured for a free media environment in compliance with SADC Principles and Guidelines, which stipulate that all contesting parties and candidates should have access to the public media. The media can play a more specific role in enabling full public participation in elections, not just by reporting election results but also by providing a platform for the political parties to communicate their message to the electorate in an environment where the parties are allowed to debate with each other. This does not often happen in Zimbabwe where the government has an absolute monopoly on the electronic media. After immense pressure, locally and regionally, to level the electoral playing field the ZANU-PF government opened up the airwaves to opposition parties. This paper examines the attempts by the government of Zimbabwe to democratise media access for the parties during the March 2005 elections and whether the media really fulfilled their democratic role in those few days, regarded as the "election period" from 26 February - 29 March 2005.

    Is There a Free Media Environment in Zimbabwe?
    The provisions contained in the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) are alleged to be antithetical to a free media environment. AIPPA has been used to close down independent newspapers, The Daily News, The Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune and The Weekly Times. Under the Act it is a serious criminal offence for a newspaper to operate and for a journalist to practice without being registered or accredited by the Media Information Commission (MIC). It is also an offence under the Act for a journalist to publish false information. Whilst this is important for responsible journalism, it has led to self-censorship and stifled freedom of speech, as independent newspapers are afraid of the threat of closure by the MIC. The MIC is considered a partisan body because it consists of ministerial appointees who are given wide-ranging powers to decide which newspapers may operate and which journalists may practice their profession. The Act has also been used to stop most foreign journalists from operating inside the country since only permanent residents of Zimbabwe are entitled to be accredited as journalists for longer than 30 days. During the 2005 elections two British journalists from the Sunday Telegraph were arrested for trying to cover the elections without accreditation, an offence that carries a fine and up to two years in jail. However other foreign journalists and media outlets such as Sky News were given accreditation and they covered the elections.

    How Accessible was the Public Media?
    Government owned media, funded out of public money should be required to give fair coverage and equitable access to the opposition. Under the Broadcasting Services (Access to radio and television during an election) Regulations 2005 (Statutory Instrument 22 of 2005), the government of Zimbabwe gazetted regulations permitting opposition parties "reasonable access" to the state controlled media and the advertising rates for both radio and television on 16 February 2005. Radio was much cheaper ranging from Z$500.000 for 30 seconds to Z$1.4 million depending on whether it was prime time rate or weekend prime time rates. Advertising rates on television ranged from an average Z$1.4 million to almost Z$4 million.1

    The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe observed the news and current affairs coverage both prior to and after the start of the 26 February "election period". The Broadcasting Services Act defines 33 days before polling day as the election period. MMPZ observed that from 1 January to 29 March, the main stations of Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) television and radio carried a total of 408 election campaign stories covering the MDC and ZANUPF. 346 (85%) stories covered ZANU PF, whilst 62 (15%) of the stories were on the MDC. The two parties were also allocated 12 hours 23 minutes campaign time on ZTV from 6pm to 8pm from 1 January and 29 March. The national broadcaster gave ZANUPF

    11 hours and 29 minutes (93%) while 54 minutes (7%) were given to the MDC. Furthermore, it is reported that when ZANU-PF launched its campaign on 11 February, ZTV allocated 18 minutes of its 8 pm News bulletin to covering the launch. In addition, the ZANUPF launch was covered live with ZTV's presenters wearing ZANU-PF T shirts. On the following days, 12 and 13 February, further bulletins covered the ZANU-PF launch in huge contrast to the launch of the MDC campaign on 20 February, which was given only 2 minutes 35 seconds.

    Furthermore, during what is regarded as the election period (26 February- 29 March) where the ZBH is allowed by law to give fair coverage to all parties, 4 hours 44 minutes (87%) were allocated to ZANU-PF whilst only 41 minutes (13%) were allocated to the MDC. The MDC in their preliminary report on the

    2005 elections, released to the public on 31 March 2005, allege that in cases where they were given airtime coverage, viewers were either misinformed of the time or the MDC's position on a range of issues, such as resettled farmers, was completely misrepresented. A particular case in point concerns one of the MDC legislators, Tendai Biti, who had an interview on television but the programme was only clear for viewing in Harare while there was a blackout in Bulawayo and the broadcast was not clear in Gweru and Mutare area which are MDC strongholds. The MDC considered this as deliberate sabotage and made a formal complaint to the ZBH chairperson but they never had a reply. On the print media, the MDC alleges that all state controlled newspapers refused to carry MDC adverts.

    Did the Media Play that Democratic Role?
    Did the media function freely without hindrance, and was there balanced fair, complete and accurate coverage? The reports that are coming from Zimbabwe show an improvement in the electoral climate which was peaceful, but still the media remained an area that required improvement. For example, the Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC Countries, (SADC ECF) in their interim statement, reiterated the importance of the media in the electoral process and called for further equitable coverage of all political contestants in the public media. The head of the SADC Observer Mission, Minister Mlambo-Ngcuka, also stressed improved access to the state media by the opposition. Whilst a number of people and analysts had welcomed the opening up of the airwaves they did not believe in the sincerity of the ZANU-PF government. The MMPZ who monitored the media coverage, stated that the ZBH failed to fulfil its public mandate to provide balanced and fair coverage. They argue that from the allocation of time to the news coverage, it was clear that the broadcaster was biased in favour of the ruling party. Furthermore they argue that most of the coverage was used to denigrate the MDC and to positively portray the ruling party. They conclude their findings by stating categorically that the ZBH made no attempt to disguise their gross bias in favour of the ruling party at the expense of other contesting parties, thereby violating the spirit of SADC Guidelines and depriving Zimbabweans their right to access information.

    The MDC, in their report, concluded that the party's attempts to use the state media as an effective means to communicate their policies and policies to the electorate was constantly frustrated and there was no equal or reasonable access to the electronic media. The Zimbabwe observer mission, which is a consortium of groups comprising the South African Council of Churches, SANGOCO, IDASA, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in their report, concluded that the MDC had some space but it was too little and much too late.

    However the private press is said to have given greater and more positive coverage to the MDC and its activities and also carried a critical examination of the ZANU-PF claims in its manifesto. Some of the private press also followed up on issues of ZANU-PF vote buying. They also raised questions about the government's list of foreign observers and speculated on those that were left out (MMPZ Weekly Media Update, 14 February - 20 February 20 2005). Such is the nature of the private press in Zimbabwe that it tends to be the opposition mouthpiece and very critical of government. The private press tends to be for the consumption of the urban population and also to a large extent, it is elite oriented, whilst 70% of the rural population listen to the radio, which is also the ruling party's propaganda mouthpiece. This points to the polarisation of the media in Zimbabwe, where the independent press highlights the opposition policies and the public media is characterised by state party control. This is not peculiar to Zimbabwe alone, but in most African countries the government has absolute monopoly of the electronic media

    Zimbabwe's society is not characterised by media freedom and diversity. A major obstacle is some provisions of AIPPA. Without media freedom and pluralism, democracy is not possible; media freedom is impossible in countries where authoritarian rule is rampant. In the 2005 elections, media access was not democratised and it remains an arena of political struggle. There was unequal access to the public broadcaster and there is evidence that access was skewed in favour of the ruling party. The electronic media needs to be put under the full control of a truly independent broadcasting regulatory authority. There should be a well-developed regulatory framework for media activities during election periods to facilitate media freedom and a press complaints body such as ICASA in South Africa. There is a greater need for the Zimbabwe government, the ruling party, the opposition parties, and civil society to revisit the issue of democratising communications, broadcasting access and the relevant bodies.


    • Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC Countries Interim Statement. Harare, 2 April 2005
    • Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe Weekly Media Update, 14 February - 20 February 2005
    • Zimbabwe Observer Mission Report on the 2005 Zimbabwe Parliamentary Elections, Pretoria 8 April 2005
    • MDC Preliminary Report on March 2005 Parliamentary Elections, MDC 31 March 2005
    • Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe "Media Environment in Zimbabwe prior to the March 2005 Elections, 30 March 2005


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