THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

Media: An instrument for peace or violence - Peace Watch 6/2010
May 31, 2010

Media - an instrument for peace or violence?

With the principals of both major political parties talking about the possibility of elections being held next year, the use of hate speech and falsehoods by a partisan public media becomes a burning issue. In the lead up to the March and June 2008 elections the public media used hate speech extensively. [See Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe [MMPZ] publication “The Propaganda War on Electoral Democracy”: “(there was) a resurgence in the use of ‘hate speech’ in the government controlled media aimed at publicly discrediting ZANU-PF’s legitimate political opposition in a concerted campaign to portray these groups as ‘traitors’, ‘sell-outs’ and ‘puppets’ intent on undermining the country's sovereignty”.].

After the Presidential run-off election in June the Pan-African Parliament Observer Mission reported that “the State-controlled media was used as a vehicle to discredit the opposition candidate in all forms” and summed up the effect of hate speech during the campaign: “Hate speech, incitement of violence and war rhetoric instilled fear and trepidation amongst voters.” The SADC Observer Mission noted the “one sided coverage in content and extent of one candidate on the part of the state media, print and electronic.” [Both missions found the run-off election had not been free and fair. It was not only unfair media coverage that did not permit fair elections, but also that the period before the elections was marked by violence – political murders, rapes, assault, destruction of dwellings, etc.] The role of the media in whipping up violence before the 2008 elections has also been documented by MMPZ in “The Language of Hate”.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission [ZEC], obliged by law to monitor the media during the election period to ensure “fair, balanced and equal or equitable coverage of contestants”, reported that it had not been able to establish a “well thought-out mechanism to effectively manage this function, let alone to develop a good working relationship with media houses”, but cautiously admitted that “the media found it challenging to comply with the regulations and, in the main, their editorial policies influenced the content of their publications on electoral issues”. ZEC said all newspapers had failed to maintain fairness, and the period before the Presidential run-off election had seen all of them “engaging in name-calling and the use of unrestrained language”.

What is hate speech?

In MMPZ’s “The Language Of Hate” hate speech is defined thus : “Hate speech is bigoted language that attacks or disparages a social group or member of such a group. The intention is to systematically undermine and subjugate the identified victim using insulting and offensive language in order to destroy the public reputation of the individual or group.” MMPZ adds: “By its very nature hate language is specifically intended to excite hostility and public contempt for those individuals or groups who are its targets to an extent that the general perception is that they no longer deserve to have their basic human rights protected.”

Hate speech can be deadly

The Rwanda Experience: The use of hate language as “code words” to convey unspoken but unmistakable meanings was demonstrated during the Rwanda genocide of 1994 during which Human Rights Watch estimates 800 000 Tutsis were massacred and about two million were displaced. With enough political will, Zimbabwe could draw some lessons from the Rwanda experience. It is generally accepted that during this tragedy the media, particularly Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines [RTLM] and the state owned newspaper Kangura, played a crucial role in fanning hostilities through the use of hate language against Tutsis. It was noted that anti-Tutsi hate speech “became so systematic as to seem the norm”. For example, RTLM began to routinely use the term Inyezi [cockroach] to refer to Tutsis. Once people are de-humanized it becomes easier to brutally kill them.

Hate Speech in Zimbabwe: The same resort to hate speech to dehumanize targeted groups of people by referring to them as things has also been seen in Zimbabwe. At the height of the Gukurahundi massacres, veteran nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo was referred to as a “snake” whose head needed to be chopped off. The Shona word Gukurahundi itself means “sweeping or washing away chaff” and in this case the chaff represented people in Matabeleland, from Nkomo’s ethnic group. In 2005, another form of purging or cleansing “rubbish” was undertaken in the form of Operation Murambatsvina, the government clean-up exercise which rendered about a million people homeless and robbed a further two million of livelihoods.

The gender-based angle to the Rwanda media campaign, featuring cartoons depicting Tutsi women as sex objects, has been replicated in Zimbabwe. Slogans such as “Let us see what a Tutsi woman tastes like” used by Hutu extremists to justify rape and other sexual crimes have been echoed in this country. Women victims of rape and other forms of violence whose ordeals are recounted in Cries from Goromonzi, published by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, have described being referred to as “Tsvangirai’s prostitutes”.

The MDC and its leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai are routinely referred to in the official media as “Western puppets” responsible for the imposition of targeted sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle. Non-governmental organizations, trade unions, the Law Society of Zimbabwe, human rights groups and many other organizations are routinely labelled “regime-change agents” and accused of being in the employ of foreign governments. The peddlers of propaganda, falsehoods and hate speech behave as though repeating allegations often enough makes them true and valid.

The assassination of character through the publication of false allegations about groups or individuals is catastrophic for the victims. It often results in assaults, abductions, torture, rape and arbitrary arrests when the aspersions cast are seized upon by youth militias and other similarly politically aligned entities as cues to pounce on those maligned in this manner.

GPA recognised the dangers of hate speech

Preamble: In the preamble to the Global Political Agreement [GPA] the parties proclaimed their determination to “build a society free of violence, fear, intimidation hatred, patronage, corruption and founded on justice, fairness, openness, transparency, dignity and equality” and to act in a manner that “demonstrates respect for the democratic values of justice, fairness, openness, tolerance, equality, respect of all persons and human rights”.
Article 19.1(e) of the GPA states that all three parties agree: “…that the public and private media shall refrain from using abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred or that unfairly undermines political parties and other organizations. To this end, the inclusive government shall ensure that appropriate measures are taken to achieve this objective.”

GPA prohibition of hate speech not implemented

More than a year after the formation of the Inclusive Government, commentators point out there has been no let-up in party political propaganda in the state controlled media, The Herald, The Chronicle, The Sunday Mail and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation [radio and television]. The People’s Voice, ZANU PF’s recently revived official organ, complements the tone of state newspapers. The public media still adopts a hostile and defamatory tone of reporting towards other political parties and organizations or groups deemed to be opposed to President Mugabe’s policies. Reports released recently by organizations such as the Civil Society Monitoring Mechanism [CISOMM] and the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe [MMPZ] lament the fact that the public media continues to function as a ZANU- PF mouthpiece [reports available at]. Based on past experience, Zimbabweans have reason to be apprehensive about a biased public media and its seeming impunity to prosecution for inaccuracies, in the build-up to an election and its aftermath.

JOMIC [the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee set up under the GPA] is supposed to monitor measures taken by the government to restrain media use of abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred. At an early meeting soon after the formation of the inclusive government JOMIC received complaints from MDC-T about abusive language in the public media – and from ZANU-PF about external radio stations – and formed a Media Committee. JOMIC’s response, if any, to these complaints has had no obvious effect on public media products. [Veritas has tried without success to obtain JOMIC reports which should be publicly available.]

Organ on National Healing and Reconciliation: The media can play such a critical role in the incitement to violence that the Organ should also be looking into this. The Organ has had a meeting with the Minister of Media Information and Publicity and his Permanent Secretary and editors of State-controlled newspapers. [Again Veritas has tried without success to get feedback from the Organ.]

Parliamentary Investigation: The House of Assembly Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Communication Technology is due to finalise its report on the state of the public media this week. Organisations and individuals giving evidence at well-attended public hearings held by the committee expressed dissatisfaction with the public media’s lopsided and partial approach. The committee’s report will not be available to the public until it is presented to the House after it resumes on 30th June. [Veritas will circulate the report as soon as it becomes available.]

ZMC a Ray of Hope?

Could there be a light at the end of the tunnel? After a long delay in setting up the Zimbabwe Media Commission [ZMC], Zimbabweans have welcomed the registration by ZMC of five privately-owned newspapers, including the Daily News. The nation now waits to see whether, when these publications hit the streets, they help to counteract the propaganda in the State media. But the ZBC’s continued monopoly of the airwaves, with no sign of new broadcasters being permitted, is cause for continued concern.

Encouraged by ZMC’s relatively prompt registration of the new newspapers and remembering that the Constitution requires ZMC to “promote and enforce good practice and ethics in the press, print and electronic media, and broadcasting”, the nation also waits to see what impact the ZMC will have on the behaviour of the public media.

Refusal of Renewal of Newspaper’s Registration for Abuse of Freedom of Expression

Significantly, AIPPA authorises the ZMC to refuse renewal of registration to a newspaper that has been convicted of abuse of freedom of expression under AIPPA, section 64 [see below] or that has published untruthful information and failed to publish a correction when required to do so.

Abuse of freedom of expression

Freedom of expression does not come without responsibilities. There are stiff penalties for a newspaper or broadcaster convicted of the offence of “abuse of freedom of expression”: a fine of up to $5000 or up to three years’ imprisonment and the possibility that when the time comes its registration will not be renewed by ZMC [AIPPA, sections 64 and 66A]. Abuse of freedom of expression includes:

  • the publication of information that has been intentionally or recklessly falsified by the newspaper or broadcaster so as to injure the reputation, rights and freedoms of other persons
  • the publication of information that the newspaper or broadcaster has maliciously or fraudulently fabricated
  • the publication of statements that injure the reputation, rights and freedoms of other persons when the newspaper knows the statements to be false or does not have reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and nevertheless recklessly, or with malicious or fraudulent intent, represents the statements as true.
    There is a similarly-worded offence entitled “abuse of journalistic privilege” which is applicable to individual journalists; the penalties on conviction are a fine of up to $400 or up to two years’ imprisonment [AIPPA, section 80].

Veritas makes every effort to ensure reliable information, but cannot take legal responsibility for information supplied

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.