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The press and popular organizations in Zimbabwe: A frayed alliance
Richard Saunders
Extracted from Southern Africa Report, Vol 12 No 3, June 1997
June, 1997

In the first wave of political liberalization in the 1980s, most emerging civics and leading sections of the private press shared a common program of reform. It focused on winning concessions from Zanu(PF) on a number of concrete issues: ending the State of Emergency, challenging Zanu's efforts to establish a one-party state, and forcing government to investigate and prosecute cases of public corruption. The result of this cooperation was a social alliance for democratization - or "glasnost," as it was labelled in the immediate wake of the Russian experience. 

Still too weak institutionally to establish their own media, several leading civics and social interest groups sought greater influence by cultivating links with key sections of the private sector press. This became apparent when campaigns appeared in the media but didn't exist anywhere else, and focused on concrete issues of political liberalization, like the government's continued renewal of Emergency Powers and plans for a one-party state. The private sector press presented civics with the opportunity of "leapfrogging" the institutional hurdles to popular democracy put in place by Zanu(PF), not least of which was the Mass Media Trust established by Zanu(PF) as a "neutral" national media. 

By providing an institutional point of entry into national debate for emerging social forces, leading elements of the national press became a decisive site for contesting the failing nationalist political order, and for constructing alternatives led by social interests. For a brief time, at least, publications like Parade, Moto and even the liberal-capitalist Financial Gazette, came close to performing the role of what Gramsci might have called the "General Staff" of the emerging "democracy movement." 

At times, the process involved the construction of jarring cross-class linkages: a business newspaper rose to the defence of students demonstrating for socialism; trade unionists called for broad support for national capitalists in the face of incursions from foreign capital. In both cases, the arbitrary and undemocratic exercise of authority by the ruling party was the subject of media attack. What made that attack all the more powerful was the undermining impact of the state's "commandism" within its own media. 

ESAP tests existing alliances
However, the second wave of "economic liberalization" was far more politically contentious and less amenable to popular front politics because it tried to remove popular control over the national economy. It also effectively marginalized the decision-making authority of the national political process. The formal introduction of the ESAP and structural adjustment in 1991, then, proved something of a litmus test for existing social alliances in civil society - particularly for those between leading sections of the private sector media on the one hand and civics on the other. 

ESAP reintroduced the politics of class and capital into the heart of mainstream political debate, driving wedges into existing coalitions for political reform and creating ideological divides between social activists and liberals on one side, and neo-liberal reformists on the other. This gulf would grow rapidly as the negative effects of ESAP and the severe 1992 drought precipitated a realignment of social interests. New civic organizations sprang up aiming to cope with and challenge the withdrawal of the state from the social sector. Ownership of the national media, and the social perspectives they represented, became more concentrated and narrow. 

Most of the largest private media had been key participants in the private sector's campaign for neo-liberalism in the late 1980s. Several media, notably The Financial Gazette, wedded calls for political liberalization to parallel calls for neo-liberalization of the economy, in a slick media package that proved profoundly influential in the early 1990s. This was before the program's negative implications for the social and industrial sectors were fully understood. 

The repercussions for most Zimbabweans were direct and severe: real wages dropped to their lowest levels in twenty-five years, more than fifty thousand formal sector jobs disappeared, and access to health and education services was sharply diminished. In the early 1990s, the grassroots response to this crisis was to produce a growing number of civic organizations. Among them were thousands of local "coping" groups and dozens of local, regional, and national advocacy organizations that increasingly saw government's neo-liberal program as an obstacle to community development and an object of social and political contestation. In effect, the withdrawal of the state from the social sector provoked the influx of other organizations, led by NGOs and civics. In the process, many politically moribund institutions were transfigured and revitalized. 

Media shake-out
However, the economic reforms had contradictory and mostly negative implications for the existing media and its capacity to reflect a variety of social perspectives. Despite promising wider freedom of expression in a liberalized market, ESAP provoked a shake-out within the commercial media that brought advantages to a few publishers and financially damaged many. Initially, the relaxation of government controls over foreign exchange and imports did lead to improvements in production quality in several publications and the appearance of new publications. But this boom was short-lived. 

In the early 1990s, rapidly escalating production costs and inopportune shifts in national consumer markets increasingly squeezed margins, adversely affecting new and smaller players disproportionately. The devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar, steep interest rates (which hovered near 50% in the early 1990s) and the relaxation or complete removal of price controls led to significant cost increases in the import-dependent industry. Meanwhile, the sharp fall in disposable income in the early 1990s, along with the disastrous performance of the economy in the wake of the 1992 drought - and the slow recovery from it - placed severe stress on both consumer and advertising market sales. 

There was a further concentration and centralization of large-scale production in the hands of a small number of established publishing houses with larger capital resources and greater existing market share. Titles with established subscription lists and distribution networks - and thus greater circulation and more stable, demonstrable market penetration - were better placed to withstand market contraction and tighter competition in the advertising market place. These included the publicly-owned national chain, Zimpapers, and a small collection of titles aimed at niche markets associated with minority, high-spending social and business sectors. Even then, some of these market leaders were forced to adopt conservative management practices and tolerate reduced margins in their efforts to ride out market turbulence. 

Private press short of capital
Outside of the chains, most private print media were starved of capital in the 1990s and found it difficult to expand to meet heightened market competition and rising production costs. New entries in the market were particularly vulnerable to production and market shifts, but smaller media were also adversely affected owing to their relative under-capitalization. For companies like Modus Publications, the country's largest black-owned private publisher, high interest rates proved a catastrophe whose aftershocks continued to be felt in the late 1990s. 

In the early 1990s, Modus borrowed heavily on the back of its profitable Financial Gazette to establish a popular weekly tabloid, the Sunday Gazette, and Zimbabwe's only independent newspaper, the Daily Gazette. But the losses stemming from these investments, in which rising interest repayments played a key role, prompted emergency survival measures. In late 1994 the Daily Gazette closed and the Sunday Gazette followed fourteen months later. Several titles in Modus' magazine subsidiary disappeared or were released to other publishers, and key fixed assets of the company were sold. Continuing political turbulence within the surviving Financial Gazette culminated in the mass departure of key senior editorial staff in 1996 for a new competing weekly business paper, the Zimbabwe Independent. Ironically, the Independent was funded by the sale of the Gazette to its current owners, a development which further underscores the resurgence of established, white-dominated publishing capital. 

It now seems clear that the majority of smaller operations have become non-economic, surviving largely on the basis of capital injections via subsidies and goodwill from NGOs, development agency donors, individuals, banks and other debtors. In most instances, this donor patronage is unsustainable, and further contraction in the number of titles outside the main chains is likely in the near future. One consequence will be the further narrowing of available space for a diversity of opinion and critique. Commentary and reportage are already severely limited in terms of analytical sophistication, and this constitutes a further setback. 

Political horizons narrow
While ESAP brought with it promises of the "free market of ideas," the heavy marketing of the neo-liberal `common sense' agenda by government, donors and the private sector have contributed to a narrowing of political horizons in the press. The relative lack of training and critical ability on the part of most editors, writers and reporters, the neo-liberal leanings of many media owners, and the steady barrage of rhetoric, policy reforms and grey information from the state and ESAP's backers, have all contributed centrally to a decline in the private media's vitality and diversity. 

This situation is particularly evident in media that have a history of critical analysis. Under the current twin pressures of heightened market competition and the neo-liberal ideological offensive, two monthly current affairs magazines, Parade and Horizon, have shifted their editorial content away from critical political features towards light entertainment and sports. Politics and investigative journalism, it appears, no longer sell magazines in a congested, restricted market. 

For activists hoping to use the media to expand the scope and reach of democratic challenge, the reality holds a bitter irony. Published opinion has tended to support government's neo-liberal reform program, while civic politics and popular opinion have increasingly contested the program's essential principles and practices. The political compression of the private press has diminished its capacity to represent and organize popular civil society. Civic leaders and organizers now commonly express doubts about not only the political leanings of the Zanu(PF)-dominated Zimpapers, but also the critical sympathies of leading sections of the private media. This shifting relationship has important implications for the role of the private media in national politics, the process of liberalization within the public media sector and more generally, for the trajectory of the democratization movement in coming years. 

Criticisms benefit Zanu(PF)
In some regards, Zanu(PF)'s attempts to repackage its political program by realigning itself with fractious capital have helped the party to absorb criticisms and demands for political reform, expressed through the private media. Indeed, the party has studiously reaped political benefit from albeit limited liberalization within the private press. It has deflected allegations of political intolerance by pointing to its media critics as thriving examples of Zimbabweans' freedom of expression. What is not mentioned by party officials, but well understood by journalists, publishers and much of their readership, is the limited nature of criticism that is tolerated without recrimination. Despite its rhetorical commitment to press freedom, the ruling party still holds the monopoly on the electronic media via the ZBC, still keeps a tight grip on Zimpapers and Ziana, and still maintains legal measures that it uses to contain investigative reportage and commentary within tight borders. 

The privatizing passion of Zanu(PF)'s neo-liberal state has not been exercised on the jealously-guarded national public media. This gaping contradiction now attracts the attention of both reform activists in the civic movement and of the private sector. Both sides insist on opening up the public press and broadcasting system and making them accessible to social interests beyond the ruling party. But while it is apparent that this process must involve the de-linking of the public media from Zanu(PF) and the creation of a press that reflects more accurately the plural nature of Zimbabwean civil society, the precise means by which de-linking should be accomplished - and the preferred ownership structure of the public media in the future - are less clear, and open to contention. 

The current wave of political liberalization, set against the backdrop of neo-liberalism's attack on the nationalist state, and on the rights of social groups to gain access to and hold politically accountable lead institutions in the state and civil society, clearly contains both opportunities and obstacles for democracy activists. In the wake of the recent performance of the leading sections of the private press, it is apparent that privatization of the public press alone is not sufficient to guarantee greater plurality and diversity in a new media. 

Narrower access possible
In de-linking the public media from formal political organizations, questions arise about the narrower access that might result from new ownership patterns. To date such questions have been addressed mainly by Zanu(PF), which in trying to protect the state's hold on the public media has warned of the dangers of the alternative: a (white) minority-controlled national media. In the future, it is likely the party will opt for a degree of privatization that primarily benefits its business supporters. This option, too, clearly hinders democratization of the media. 

For the most part, leading civics in Zimbabwe have failed to fully address this issue. The calls made through the Zimbabwe Media Council and other institutions for openness, professionalism, tolerance, and reduced censorship in the national media have been first steps; but the key issue of how to structure public accountability within the media has been absent from debate. This reflects uncertainty over the political viability of either a newly configured public media infrastructure, or a fully privatized one. In the past. both have led to popular disillusionment with the national media. In a period of economic and political "liberalization" controlled by a single political organization, there are few practical options for the "democratization" of the public media that do not invite the political penetration by Zanu(PF) or its surrogates. 

Despite the growing self-confidence of some sections of the private media in their critique of state politics, and public support for the media to "remain at the cutting edge" of civil society, the centre of the democratization struggle has shifted closer to the grassroots of civic activism in the 1990s. In recent years, leading civics have found more direct means of intervention in the political space, in lobbying government, networking with other civics at all levels, and using established structures such as the churches and social development agencies to communicate with potential allies. This evolving strategy has its own weaknesses, but is nevertheless helping to establish a basis for the wider participation of civics and other social groups in the national political process. 

Democracy activism on rise
The state's response, which has included legislated attacks and other efforts at subjugation and encirclement, suggests this strategy may be having some success. Space for democratic activism continues to open. Civics have been able to pry their way into engagement with the state through a reformulated popular nationalist critique ranged against ESAP and its World Bank and IMF sponsors. This new, loosely-configured nationalist perspective includes the central demand that "national programs" like ESAP be made national by including a diversity of national social interests. Such a popular, inclusive model of nationalism constitutes a powerful challenge to that constructed by Zanu(PF), and seems likely to form the fulcrum point for Zimbabwe's democratization politics in coming years.

*Richard Saunders, SAR's "man in Harare" has no fixed address.  

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