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Electoral Law Amendments and Zengeza by-election
Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ)
Extracted from Weekly Media Update 2004-12
Monday March 22nd - Sunday March 28th 2004

Government's reluctance to democratize the electoral process, as demanded by the political opposition and civic society, was graphically illustrated by the news this week of its intention to introduce amendments to the Electoral Act that would further erode the democratic process.

In its report, The Herald (22/3) failed to examine the serious consequences the amendments would have on the conduct of the 2005 Parliamentary elections. This was all the more alarming because the changes would give ZANU PF even greater freedom to control the electoral process via the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) and the Registrar-General's office. The proposals include giving the ESC total control over voter education, banning foreign funding for voter education organizations except if it is channelled through the ESC, limiting postal votes to diplomatic staff posted outside Zimbabwe and empowering the RG's office to use its discretion to change names and addresses on the voters' roll without prior notice. This development emerged amid intense debate over whether the MDC should participate in next year's elections in the presently biased electoral environment that heavily favours the ruling party.

In fact, the defects of this electoral process were demonstrated by the violence and other anomalies that characterised the Zengeza by-election. But rather than condemn the amendments, the government media underlined their complicity in the erosion of Zimbabwe's democratic space by defending them.

The Herald (23/3) falsely claimed that the Electoral Act Amendments were part of "an ongoing process that will make next year's general elections as transparent as possible", and "create a level political playing field". While ZBC simply censored news of the proposals, the private media highlighted their grim ramifications. They also exposed the fact that they represented a rehash of the General Laws Amendment Bill, dismissed by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, but which government reincarnated on the eve of the 2002 presidential poll through a Presidential decree (Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa (22/03), The Daily Mirror (23/3), The Financial Gazette (25/3) and The Standard (28/3).

The private media also viewed the amendments as a government stunt to hoodwink the international community into believing that it was restoring democracy ahead of next year's elections (The Financial Gazette and The Standard).

In fact, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, lawyer Arnold Tsunga and the SADC Electoral Institute wondered about government's motives in wanting to monopolise the electoral process at a time when civic society was expecting government to make "positive developments" to the law (The Daily Mirror, 23/3, Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa, 24/3).

Tsvangirai claimed on SW Radio Africa that government was "taking another step in the wrong direction" because the changes ignored the MDC's demands for elections to be held in a "genuinely free and fair" atmosphere.

Director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace Munyaradzi Chaumba and The Zimbabwe Election Support Network executive director, Reginald Matchaba-Hove, also castigated the amendments in The Daily Mirror.

However, the government media remained partisan, choosing to chide the MDC instead over its threats to boycott the 2005 election if the electoral landscape continued to entrench ZANU PF hegemony.

For example, The Herald (22/3) quoted ZANU-PF national commissar Elliot Manyika dismissing MDC's election boycott threats as inconsequential. Said Manyika: "Let them boycott the election and Zanu PF will walk into Parliament and that would be the end of the MDC".

Another article in the same paper unquestioningly magnified this government line of thinking when it alleged that the MDC's threats were driven by "fear of defeat". The paper claimed it was actually "honourable" for the MDC to boycott the elections as it would "go down into oblivion with some honour and leave its adherents clutching to the fantasy that it was never defeated".

Meanwhile, the vote-buying and violence in Zengeza exposed by the private media, vindicated the MDC's calls for a reformed legal framework. By contrast, the government media tried to downplay the violence by carrying vague and unattributed reports of "skirmishes" between party supporters. This attempt to suffocate the fact that ZANU-PF was again engaged in a vicious campaign in its pursuit of power was eloquently demonstrated by The Herald (24/3).

The paper tried to paint a picture of normalcy in Zengeza by claiming that "campaigns in the constituency have been generally peaceful despite a violent start and sporadic incidents of violence..."

ZBC was similarly unforthcoming. It merely relied on the ESC's updates. Interestingly, seven of the 35 stories ZBC carried on the election were about the ESC denying the existence of such violence. However, in the instances that the electoral body acknowledged the violence (five stories), the public broadcaster only presented it as an afterthought, including masking the perpetrators (Power FM, 26/3, 8pm; 27/3, 1pm; 28/3, 1pm, and ZTV, 27/03, 6pm and 8pm).

However, The Tribune (26/3), which visited the constituency exposed the government's blatant misrepresentation of the reality.

The paper's well-sourced article, Violence mars Zengeza poll, revealed that the situation in Zengeza was worsening. Although Manyika denied that his party was to blame, the paper quoted several members of the public and the MDC candidate, James Makore, implicating ZANU-PF supporters for causing violence. Other private media corroborated the report.

SW radio, for example, carried nine stories on the Zengeza violence, eight of which attributed it to ZANU PF, while the victims were all MDC supporters. The remaining incident was unattributed.

Apart from covering every ZANU PF "star rally" in Zengeza and almost always quoting lengthy ruling party officials' speeches, the government media did not question ZANU PF's unethical attempts to win votes ahead of the election.

These media, for example, did not query the vote-buying gimmick of ZANU PF officials when they publicly enticed the Zengeza electorate to vote for their party by promising them facilities such as "a freezit-making business" (Power FM 22/3); a free health service facility (The Herald 22/3, Power FM 24/3, 1pm and 8pm); and "scholarships" (Power FM 24/3, 1pm and 8pm). But the private media were categorical in exposing electoral malpractice, which is actually an offence even under the current defective electoral laws.

In fact, any pretence that such promises were genuine and really meant to empower Zengeza residents was exposed by The Standard's revelations that the "free clinic" opened by the authorities would only cater for those recommended by ZANU PF officials.

The Standard (28/3) also cited a ZESN report alleging that ZANU PF candidate Christopher Chigumba was offering $10,000 to people he visited during his door-to-door campaign. Similar allegations were made by SW Radio Africa (24/3).

If the government media were not suppressing ZANU PF's undemocratic practice, then they were campaigning for the ZANU PF candidate at the expense of opposition candidates.

ZBC epitomised this. Out of the 35 stories that TV, Radio Zimbabwe and Power FM carried on the election, 13 (37%) were on ZANU PF's campaign while the remaining 22 reports or 63% were on the activities of the ESC. None was on the campaign activities of opposition candidates.

ZBC's unethical conduct was certainly in breach of the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), which stipulates that during elections, the broadcaster "shall give reasonable and equal opportunities for the broadcasting of election matter to all parties contesting the election."

Only Studio 7 provided the opposition parties such as the MDC and ZANU Ndonga with the platform to campaign in two of its four poll stories (23 & 25/3). The rest sought independent opinion from the Zimbabwe Integrated Party (ZIP) leader, Prof. Heneri Dzinotyiwei, on the MDC and ZANU PF's chances of clinching the Zengeza constituency.

The government media's relentlessly partisan coverage of the polls continued to find vent in its glossing over of the anomalies and violence on the voting days themselves.

For example, ZTV (28/3) and The Herald (29/3) tried to mask the identity of an MDC supporter who was shot dead by suspected ZANU PF activists at Makore' s home. They also suffocated the circumstances leading to the shooting.

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