ZIMBABWEAN journalists will commemorate this year’s World Press Freedom Day on Sunday in a gloomy atmosphere where media houses are struggling for survival in a harsh economic climate and changes in the media landscape.
This has resulted in retrenchments, the slashing of salaries or embracing of convergence as part of cost-cutting measures to ensure survival, while stringent laws that impinge on freedom of expression are still in place despite a new constitution.
There is a growing gap between media houses’ cost structures and revenue bases in the context of structural changes on the media landscape, technological advances and a struggling economy. Transport minister Obert Mpofu’s paper, the Zimbabwe Mail was forced to change from being a daily into a weekly in order to survive, but was forced to close down last month.
AMH’s Bulawayo publication Southern Eye was recently turned into a supplement in the Newsday (also published by AMH) to cut costs.
The celebrations that take place yearly on May 3 will be held under the Unesco theme “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality, and Safety in the Digital Age”.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) director Nhlanhla Ngwenya said Zimbabwean media are still grappling with a litany of challenges that range from legal frustrations to the socio-economic environment.
Ngwenya said: “While the global communities are celebrating, we are actually taking stock of a litany of challenges that the media face in the country. It’s quite ironic that this year’s May 3 celebrations are about protecting journalists in the digital era.
“However this freedom of expression is under threat, for instance the stance by Potraz (Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) that it is working on Bills to tighten screws of citizens enjoying the right of expressing themselves on multiple platforms on online.”
He said it is almost two years after the new constitution came into existence but the same instruments that infringe on freedom of expression, that is Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), Official Secrets Act (Osa), Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and criminal defamation laws remain a threat.
Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio stations national coordinator Vivienne Marara said even though there was some progress in promoting print and broadcast media through the licensing of new media there was little to celebrate.
“We also note the gaps that are still in our midst, especially looking at issues around alignment of media laws to the constitution, licensing of community radios, arrest and intimidation of media practitioners. There is therefore need to address these issues so that the media is able to flourish as a whole,” Marara said.
Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary-general Foster Dongozi said the celebrations would come at a difficult time for journalists in a traditional set-up where newspapers like The Zimbabwe Mail had to close while the Southern Eye was turned into a supplement in the Newsday.
“Other challenges continue to haunt us such as the continued harassment of journalists while doing their work. That is a negative that we have to deal with.”
While harassment of journalists has mostly been perpetrated by government, recently the country’s leading mobile operator Econet Wireless and its banking unit Steward Bank raided the offices of a local news agency, The Source, after obtaining a High Court order, claiming they were looking for stolen confidential material used to publish stories.
One of the contentious stories titled “Steward Bank seeks to settle US$2,1million in Chiyangwa loan” alleged that Steward Bank was considering swapping residential stands to the tune of US$2,1 million to recover funds borrowed by a property firm owned by businessman Phillip Chiyangwa.
The article quoted confidential documents which showed that Chiyangwa’s Pinnacle Property Holdings owed US$2 170 763,78 despite surrendering collateral worth US$720 000 as security.
All over the world, news media are in turmoil, grappling with demands to adapt to rapidly changing technological innovations and commercial models that affect their businesses.