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  • 2008 harmonised elections - Index of articles

  • Pre-electoral environment: Equitable access to state media
    Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ)
    Extracted from the MMPZ presentation to the Diplomatic Community

    March 12, 2008

    The Media Monitoring Project (Zimbabwe) is greatly concerned that the ruling party has effectively hijacked the public media ahead of the March 29th elections.

    ZBC, the national public broadcaster, now behaves as if it is ZANU PF's own private radio and television station in flagrant violation of electoral and broadcasting laws.

    This is being done at the expense of disseminating important electoral information the public needs to make informed choices and to cast their votes effectively in what is certain to be Zimbabwe's most complicated plebiscite in its history.

    This lack of adequate electoral information is likely to disenfranchise many potential voters. There is no publicity campaign - no effort by the public media or the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to meet their duty and mandate to inform the electorate adequately about any electoral information. Instead, the public media is engaged in a propaganda war, which romanticizes and promotes the ruling party and denigrates its rivals.

    The situation is made worse by the fact that just a few weeks before polling, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has still not fulfilled its legal mandate to ensure equitable and fair coverage of the election contestants, especially in the public media. Although any correction to this state of affairs will come too late to ensure that the media environment can be described as being conducive to the staging of a free and fair election, MMPZ has called on ZEC to put an end to the intolerable bias1 demonstrated by ZBC and the government-controlled newspapers.

    Because government-controlled media institutions are funded by public money and already massively dominate Zimbabwe's media landscape, it is imperative they provide fair, balanced and equitable coverage of all parties contesting the elections. But at present their grossly biased coverage in favor of the ruling party constitutes a clear violation of Zimbabwe's own electoral and broadcasting laws, let alone the SADC guidelines2 on the holding of democratic elections, to which Zimbabwe is a signatory.

    For example, on Friday February 29th, all of ZBC's stations abruptly suspended normal programming to provide live coverage of ZANU PF's election manifesto launch, which, incredibly, lasted for four hours. This coverage was preceded by what constitutes free advertisements masquerading as news items for the ruling party on ZBC radio's 6am-news bulletin of February 28th. In a so-called news story, the station carried an announcement for senior ZANU-PF cadres in Masvingo Province, advising them where to find transport to bring them to Harare for the launch of the ruling party's manifesto. This kind of service exclusively accorded to ZANU (PF), is clearly in breach of Section 16F of the ZEC Act.

    By comparison, ZBC gave no live coverage to the launch of Simba Makoni's presidential campaign in Bulawayo the following day, or to the launch of the MDC campaign led by Morgan Tsvangirai in Sakubva the week before.

    During the week ending Sunday 2nd March, ZTV devoted 64 minutes of its news bulletins to reporting favourably on ZANU PF's campaigns, compared to just three minutes given to the two MDC factions and eight minutes to Makoni.

    Such prominence given to the ruling party constitutes grossly inequitable, unfair and partisan coverage of important election issues and essentially reflects the way the national public broadcaster has been reporting all election campaign activities.

    MMPZ's preliminary findings on the national public broadcaster's coverage of these elections reveal that between February 5th and 29th, ZTV accorded a total of three hours, 22 minutes to ZANU (PF)'s electoral activities in its main news bulletins (7am, 6pm and 8pm). In stark contrast, just nine minutes were allocated to the two MDC formations and 26 minutes to independent presidential candidate Makoni, while other political parties got four minutes. This coverage comprised 93 stories devoted to the ruling party, 86 of them in a positive light, (seven were neutral).

    There were four reports on the two MDC formations' activities, one positive, one negative and two neutral. Fifteen stories were devoted to Makoni, five of which were fair and the rest negative. The station aired three stories on other smaller parties, two of which were favourable because they involved a pro-ZANU (PF) party, the Zimbabwe Development Party led by Kisnoti Mukwazhi.

    ZBC radio stations followed a similar pattern. Spot FM (main news bulletins, 7am, 1pm, 6pm and 8pm) devoted 50 stories to ZANU (PF), all favourable. There were only two reports on the MDC's activities, one favourable and one neutral. Radio Zimbabwe carried 68 stories on the ruling party's activities. 67 of these clearly supported the ruling party, while one was neutral. Only three reports were on the MDC. Two of these were negative and one was neutral.
    The government-controlled daily papers, which hold a national monopoly over this market (as does ZBC over the airwaves), are performing no better. Their coverage of the parties' campaign activities in the week ending 2nd March for example, also reflected a heavy bias towards the ruling party. Of the 51 stories they carried on the election contestants, 31 favourably covered ZANU PF campaigns while the remaining 20 were distributed among the electoral preparations of the two MDC formations, Makoni and the other smaller opposition parties. Nineteen of these portrayed a negative image of the parties covered, the only exception being the launch of Makoni's campaign in Bulawayo and Harare. The bias shown by the government media reinforces the public demand that ZEC applies the laws governing media coverage of elections, as well as to respond to calls to allow greater media diversity in the coverage of elections.

    It is against this background that MMPZ condemns the restrictive condition imposed by ZEC that requires journalists seeking accreditation to cover the joint elections to be first accredited by the Media and Information Commission, which has yet to be reconstituted according to amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act gazetted into law in January. As such, the MIC does not legally exist in its present form and ZEC's regulation cannot have any force at law, especially as the requirement cannot be met by journalists who are not already accredited.

    Similarly, the extortionate application and accreditation fees for all but locally accredited journalists recently announced by the Minister of Information cannot be viewed as anything less than punitive and is clearly designed to discourage international - and even regional - media from covering the elections.

    In addition, MMPZ considers the arbitrary ban imposed by MIC on the well-known local journalist, Brian Hungwe, to be a wanton violation of Zimbabweans' rights to free expression and a clear illustration of the commission's repressive instincts. In its present state the commission has no authority to make such decisions, although its action exposes the real, restrictive intent of the law under which the commission was constituted.

    Amendments to AIPPA do nothing that practically reforms media laws regulating journalistic activity in Zimbabwe. While, on the face of it, journalistic practice has been decriminalized, this only applies to freelance journalists; media institutions operating in the country cannot employ any journalist who is not accredited and therefore still risk heavy penalties, including closure (or expulsion) if they do so, under the restrictive regulations of AIPPA.
    ZEC's demand and the Media Commission's continuing control over journalistic activity in the country clearly demonstrates the Government's lack of political will in ensuring an open and diverse media environment. These government institutions are making a mockery of the country's laws - while the amendments to AIPPA (and POSA) are evidently an insincere gesture to give the appearance that government is complying with SADC's electoral recommendations.

    The national public broadcaster's illegal monopoly of the airwaves3 and its continuing propagandist role for the ruling party and its representatives provides overwhelming proof of this insincerity.

    While it is too late to expect a media environment conducive to effective media coverage of the coming elections, MMPZ believes that ZEC should immediately put an end to the extreme bias and inequitable coverage of the election participants in the public media and ensure that they observe the provisions of Zimbabwe's electoral laws4.

    There is no doubt that the government-controlled media are ignoring requirements of the law. For example, while Section 16F(c) of the ZEC Act demands that "a clear distinction is made in their news media between factual reporting and editorial comment on it", The Herald continues to mix the two as exemplified by its February 28th edition story entitled "Meet the people tour". The story talks about Tsvangirai's visit to three high density suburbs in Harare and includes what is clearly an opinion - "He [Tsvangirai] said he had seen during the tour how people were suffering because of the economic hardships, ironically caused by the MDC, which urged the West to impose economic sanctions against Zimbabwe."

    MMPZ has offered its research and monitoring services to the Commission but to date no response has been received.

    1. See MMPZ Weekly Media Update No. 2008-8
    2. Principle 2.1.5 calls for equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media.
    3. The Supreme Court struck down ZBC's monopoly of the airwaves in 2000 but to date, a de facto monopoly persists.
    4. Section 16G of the Zimbabwe electoral Act says: (i) The Commission shall monitor the Zimbabwean news media during any election period to ensure that political parties, candidates, broadcasters, print publishers and journalists observe the provisions of this Part.

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