Opposition sceptical of airwaves access

Itai Dzamara


GOVERNMENT’S decision to have the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) give coverage to opposition parties in line with regional guidelines on the conduct of elections will not achieve much unless it is implemented fully and fa

irly, analysts said this week.


Opposition parties are sceptical about government’s sincerity in claiming that the public broadcaster will give equal access to all parties ahead of next year’s elections. The opposition parties said ZBH, which has become an instrument of Zanu PF propaganda, was likely to push the ruling party’s mantras to the exclusion of all else.


Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa last week said ZBH would be giving coverage to all political parties ahead of next year’s general election. This would be part of efforts to reform the electoral framework to meet standards prescribed under the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) guidelines, Chinamasa said.


Misa-Zimbabwe legal officer, Silas Dziike, this week said the Sadc principles on the conduct of elections cited access to the public media by political parties as one of the most critical areas. He said there was however no law in Zimbabwe which specifically provided for that, leaving ZBH open to political manipulation.


One of the areas included in clause 7:4 of the Sadc electoral guidelines is equal access to the media by all political parties.


“The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Bill should have included this aspect in line with the Sadc guidelines,” Dziike said. “But it doesn’t have it and the Broadcasting Services Act is silent on that aspect. It merely deals with the technical regulations of the broadcast media, such as regulating the airwaves.


“What we can have therefore are bilateral agreements between ZBH and the political parties as was the case in 2000 when ZBC came up with 10 golden rules. However, that is prone to political manipulation,” he said.


Zimbabwe Election Support Network chairman Reginald Matchaba-Hove said ZBH needs to be independent and professional in line with the recently adopted Sadc principles on elections.


“Under normal circumstances, there shouldn’t be an order from government to the broadcaster to give balanced coverage to all parties,” he said. “The broadcasting authority must act professionally and independently in the coverage of political parties. One of the standards in the Sadc principles clearly states that there should be equal access to the media by all political parties. This is therefore one of the areas that we need to address if we are to comply with those guidelines.”


ZBH board chairman Rino Zhuwarara this week said the broadcaster would wait for a declaration by President Robert Mugabe of the election period, after which the broadcaster would give space to contesting political parties.


“The Broadcasting Services Act clearly stipulates how we should do this (giving access to political parties),” he said. “That is what we will follow.”


“We will not censor anything because we are not in the business of censorship. There is obviously the need for quality control and we will do this in discussion and agreement with the political parties after the president has declared the election period,” he said.


Zhuwarara added that ZBH would be apolitical in giving coverage to political parties as long as they stuck to their agreements with the national broadcaster.


Zapu leader Paul Siwela doubts the possibility of opposition parties getting unconditional access to the public broadcaster. “What Zanu PF is likely to do is say that all opposition parties are being allocated a certain amount of space on radio and television but still order that the reporting be negative on our part,” Siwela said.


“The public media is likely to be used to set an agenda that works in favour of Zanu PF. That is what happened in 2000 despite us having agreed the rules of fairness and balance.”


Zanu (Ndonga) president Wilson Kumbula said ZBH would still censor material from opposition parties. “I have just returned from Botswana where all the political parties are getting coverage and time on national radio and television to enunciate their policies,” he said.


“Here the ZBH will certainly be used to censor our information and material to suit the Zanu PF agenda. As long as the public broadcaster is under the direct control of Zanu PF we can’t hope for anything better,” he said.


Democratic Party leader Wurayayi Zembe said: “We can’t be held to ransom on this matter because under normal circumstances all parties must enjoy unhindered access to the public media.


“We need terms which are fair to both Zanu PF and opposition parties.”


Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) secretary-general Welshman Ncube said rules should be set to ensure the opposition was given the opportunity to respond to all the allegations raised by the ruling party and vice versa, in a balanced manner.


“We have the experience of how in 2000 and 2002 our election material was censored and in some cases distorted whilst some of it was denied the chance to reach the electorate despite earlier promises that we would get balanced coverage.”


Media freedom activists Article IX say this about the role of the media in election campaigns:


“The role of election campaign broadcasting may be divided into three broad categories. The first encompasses political party and candidate access to the people through direct communications, sometimes referred to as political advertising.


“The second category includes the manner in which the broadcast media cover candidates, parties and issues of importance to the election in news and special information programming. The third category concerns voter-education information regarding the voting process, voter participation and related civic issues.”


Public broadcasters in Sadc countries like South Africa, Botswana and Zambia give wide coverage to all contesting parties before elections. The South African Broadcasting Corporation, for example, gave opposition parties such as the Democratic Alliance, the Pan-Africanist Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party space on television as well as radio to counter the campaigns of the ruling African National Congress in general elections earlier this year.


In Botswana, where a general election is set for next month, Botswana TV is currently running programmes that accord the Botswana Democratic Party and the Botswana National Front space to explain their policies while at the same time responding to questions from the public. Equal coverage is also given to the campaigns of the contesting parties.


Zambia, which recently adopted the international standards on access to the broadcast media during election campaigns, created statutory instruments that compel the Zambian National Broadcasting Company to give equal coverage and space to all political parties.

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