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Tragedy of media reforms
Rashweat Mukundu & Nhlanhla Ngwenya, OSISA
June 30, 2011

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Zimbabwe has been under a cloud for much of the 21st century starting in the year 2000, when President Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwean African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) lost a constitutional referendum to the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and civil society. The resultant attempt by ZANU-PF to regain political control led to years of chaos during which opposition supporters were killed, commercial farms were invaded and the economy was ruined.

Zimbabwe's independent media, which had been steadily growing, faced its first real test of survival as it was bundled together with the opposition and labelled 'enemies of the state' by the government. Repressive laws were enacted, journalists were arrested, and newspapers were bombed, raided and de-licensed. The state-owned media also fell victim to the political machinations of ZANU-PF as it was turned into a propaganda mouthpiece of the ruling party, and independent minded journalists were summarily dismissed. The media in Zimbabwe, which had previously been divided along ownership lines, was for the first time divided along political lines and this manifested itself in the way that issues were covered.

The signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in 2008 was viewed as heralding a new era and offering a lifeline to the independent media, which was on the ropes, since the parties committed themselves to promote the freedom of expression and a diverse media sector. But more than two years down the line, questions are being asked about whether the GPA and the Inclusive Government (IG) have achieved any of their key goals. This paper aims to show what progress has been made in relation to the media reform agenda, highlight the challenges and obstacles blocking further reforms and outline what the future holds for Zimbabwe's media...

The media in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a small media industry dominated by the state media and a few privately owned organisations. At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe inherited a monopolistic media industry, with the government in control of not only the sole broadcasting station but also the biggest newspaper publishing company. Soon after independence, efforts were made by the ZANU-PF government to transfer control of the newspaper publishing company, Zimpapers, into the hands of Zimbabweans and entrust its operations to the newly established Mass Media Trust (MMT) to insulate it from government interference (Saunders 1999:15). But this unique experiment was soon undone. Over the years, the government systematically weakened the MMT and compromised its autonomy by not providing it with adequate political protection, and sufficient financial and skilled human resources, as well as by failing to appoint individuals to the Trust who represented specific social interests and organisations (Saunders 1999:17). With the MMT weakened, the government through the Ministry of Information began to assume direct control over the newspaper stable, dictating its editorial policy and directly influencing the appointment of editorial teams. Its influence became more apparent as ZANU-PF's popularity waned and a groundswell of dissent and discontent culminated in the formation of a strong, labour-backed, political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999. Rather than allow the media to report truthfully on the Zimbabwean story, Zimpapers and indeed the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), were turned into tools to consolidate ZANU-PF's political authority, while disparaging its opponents as poodles of western imperialism, who were bereft of any ideology, national outlook and policy prescriptions to tackle Zimbabwe's problems. In essence, these media were hijacked by the ZANU-PF government to promote its policies, leaving the private media to watch over the government, expose corruption and highlight human rights violations (Chakaodza, 2003:15).

The growth of private newspapers in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, especially the establishment of the Zimbabwe Mirror, Zimbabwe Independent, Standard and Daily News, changed the face of Zimbabwe's media landscape. The state media now faced direct competition from private weekly newspapers as well as the independent Daily News, which soon eclipsed the state-owned Herald as the leading daily and indeed most influential newspaper. The Daily News reached a peak circulation of more than 100,000 copies in 2002 (MISA, 2006:100) double that of the Herald. Critically, the growth of the private media meant that the opposition and civil society could now reach significant sectors of the population with their messages, resulting in the ruling elite losing its hegemonic hold on the dissemination of information and reducing its control of political discussions in Zimbabwe.

News coverage in Zimbabwe became characterised by a clear divide between the state-owned and private media. The private press, by its own admission, took the decision to criticise and expose bad governance and human rights violations in Zimbabwe. For this reason, the Zimbabwean government saw the private media as 'enemies' who had a political agenda. The coverage of the opposition and civil society granted by the privately-owned media also attracted fierce criticism from the government and ruling elite and precipitated a broad and often brutal crackdown.

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