THE run-up to the elections exposed public media institutions – ZTV, radio stations and newspapers under the Zimpapers stable – as parochial and partisan entities serving the interests of Zanu PF instead of the public, indicating the urgent need for media reforms.
Report by Brian Chitemba
Media reforms were part of the outstanding issues in the Global Political Agreement signed in September 2008 by Zanu PF leader Robert Mugabe and his erstwhile rival MDC-T’s Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC formations lobbied Sadc to ensure media reforms before elections to level the playing field but Zanu PF turned a deaf ear instead in transforming the public media companies to an extension of its publicity department.
ZTV and radio stations went overboard by beaming live Mugabe’s star rallies across the provinces. As if that was not enough the state-run broadcaster covered pro-Zanu PF stories during the entire campaigning period while ridiculing Tsvangirai. Other political parties such as Zapu and Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn were not given adequate coverage compared to Zanu PF.
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition director, Mcdonald Lewanika, said media reforms were not only necessary but urgent considering what happened in the pre-election period.
“What the pre-election period has shown us in terms of the media is that the absence of reforms in the sector is a clear and present danger which needs to be addressed with urgency and has to be top of the agenda of any new government,” he said. “It is an acknowledged fact, including by institutions like Sadc that there is need for clear media reforms, that will allow for ZBC and the public press to serve the country and the nation beyond parochial partisan interests. To that end, media reforms are not only necessary but they are urgent.”
Media reform activists said Zanu PF should launch its own newspapers, television and radio stations instead of abusing ZBC and the Herald. After the polls the public entities should be transformed to reflect that they are real public media outlets instead of acting like official Zanu PF mouthpieces.
Media Centre director Ernest Mudzengi rebranded ZBC and the Herald as Zanu PF controlled media instead of state-run given the firm grip by Mugabe and cronnies on the entities.
He said the election coverage exposed the public media which he described as primitive media pandering to the whims of Zanu PF instead of serving the public.
“Zanu PF politburo member Jonathan Moyo was given free rein to talk about the Zanu PF manifesto on ZBC but we didn’t watch MDC spokespersons doing the same. We have seen live coverage of Mugabe rallies after which many stories will be done on the rallies. I hope the African Union and Sadc have noted this,” said Mudzengi.
“Basically what we saw before elections underlines the need for reforms. The public media is driven by public money; therefore they should perform to the expectation of the masses.”
It is clear that media reforms are urgent because over 70% of the publicity was given to Zanu PF with the chief executive of Zimpapers Justin Mutasa openly urging people to vote for Zanu PF.
“As long as we don’t have independent radio and television stations, Zanu PF will always dominate, so we can’t talk about free and fair elections. The absence of violence doesn’t mean everything is normal. There are a lot of things that are not right, media being one of them,” said Moses Ndebele, a Bulawayo based activist lobbying for licencing of community radio stations.
The Voluntary Media Council’s Media Ethic Committee expressed concern with ZBC’s live coverage of Zanu PF rallies while largely ignoring activities of other main political parties. ZBC covered all rallies conducted by Mugabe while none of the other contesting political parties received live coverage of their rallies.
VMCZ said the conduct by ZBC represents a gross violation of Zimbabwe’s electoral laws governing the media’s coverage of election issues, as all political parties, according to the act are supposed to receive fair and equitable coverage from the public broadcaster.
“It is therefore recommended that all newspapers and ZBC should strive to be accurate, fair and balanced in the manner in which they cover political events in this electoral period,” said VMCZ.
The Media and Technology Trust (MTT), a local advocacy group for media freedom and access to information, recently said Zimbabwe has enough frequencies to licence more radio and television stations despite assertions by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) and Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) that the frequency spectrum is fully utilised.
MTT said since the analogue system is not yet fully utilised, the country could capitalise on the usage of the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) instead of Very High Frequency (VHF) which has a narrow bandwidth and shorter wavelength.
MTT accuses Potraz of deliberately choosing the VHF which has a coverage radius of a mere 70km instead of the UHF with a bigger spectrum and coverage radius of 120km. While Potraz says the frequency spectrum is full, MTT argues that ZBC surrendered band one (channel 3-4) which used to carry TV2, and this could be used by community broadcasters as it is still vacant.
Zimbabwe experienced television broadcasting in the mid-1960s, while South Africa followed in the late 1970s, but the neighbouring country is now leading because it chose UHF.
Government recently licensed two Zanu PF-linked radio stations, Star FM and ZiFM despite swelling calls for freeing of airwaves.
Polls mark new transitional phase
Millions of Zimbabweans voted on Wednesday and the country is in an interregnum of uncertainty consistent with any transitional politics. It is too early to be definitive about the winner, but what is clear is that it has remained a two-horse race between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
A corpus of political analysis abounds on possible outcomes of this watershed election, but what is missing in the debates is what this means in terms of Zimbabwe’s envisaged transition from an old authoritarian order to a democratic world.
This is premised on my proposition that an election is just a sub-set of the broader transitional trajectory. So where is Zimbabwe now?
I argue that, whoever is declared winner, Zimbabwe has formally entered into a prolonged transition, this means the struggle for democratisation continues for the next five years, but there is no greater likelihood of returning to the closed authoritarian practices characteristic of Mugabe’s regime before the inclusive government.
In the initial post-election phase, the democratic gains made during the inclusive government will co-exist with some old authoritarian practices. However, depending on the tenacity of forces pushing for democratisation, a breakthrough will be found over time. After all, five-year transitional processes rarely solve all the problems and may serve as a foundational school of democracy.
The good news is that Zimbabwe did not experience the worst of possible transitional outcomes, namely, a blocked or a precluded transition. This would have meant a situation where there is a cul de sac among the parties, failure to hold an election, eruption of civil war, emergence of warlords and total chaos.
Nevertheless, Zimbabwe failed to attain a democratic transition as breakthrough reforms meant to be pursued during the inclusive government were sacrificed at the altar of politics. Even though the current election looks like an improvement from past elections, it fails to meet the tenets of a democratic election and is already a disputed election. A contested voters’ roll, partisan state media, intimidation, compromised Zimbabwe Electoral Commission secretariat, voter suppression in opposition strongholds, delays in publishing polling stations, abuse of state resources and manipulation of the voter registration process, all does not augur well for a democratic election. It therefore means that Zimbabwe rather faces a prolonged path to democratisation whoever wins.
For, if Tsvangirai wins the presidential election, his major challenge will be to stabilise the nation after more than three decades of politicisation of state institutions by Zanu PF. This would require him to accommodate elements of the old order for stability. The elements include political elites in Zanu PF, business elites who control major installations of the economy and elites in the security sector who control the gun.
Also given that Tsvangirai has waged a sleek campaign for democratisation over the years, it will be difficult for him to wake up a backslider. At worst, he can be a stabiliser of gains made during the inclusive government, but having followed his election campaign closely, I have no doubt he will be a natural advancer of the economic and democratic gains made during the inclusive government. So under Tsvangirai’s rule, it is most likely that Zimbabwe will embark on a journey to stabilise and advance the gains made for a democratic transition in the next five years. Progress will depend on support from all stakeholders and the citizenry to hold the new government accountable on its path to deepen and consolidate democracy.
On the other hand, if Mugabe is declared the winner in what already is a disputed election, legitimation will not be guaranteed as he retains the saddle of state power. As a result, for self-preservation and for political legitimacy, Mugabe will not risk backsliding into closed authoritarian practices of his old nature.
Mugabe has two possible routes to gain legitimacy from a disputed election and to avoid a post-election onslaught that will break him before the end of his term of office. The first is to include protagonists from the opposition into his cabinet and to incorporate citizens with integrity in his cabinet outside Zanu PF.
The second is that even if he chooses to form a one-party government, he will seek legitimacy and insulation from attacks through committing to protect the democratic and economic gains that were made during the initial phase of the transition. That might include avoiding changes to the new constitution, making sure that relevant commissions operate, seek to align some old laws with the new constitution, enable independent press to continue operating, engage civil society, commit to promote peace and maintain the multi-currency order until the economy has recovered significantly.
Unlike Tsvangirai, Mugabe will not be a natural advancer of democratic ideals, so the scale of democratisation in the next five years will depend on external exigent factors such as the political agency and actions of the citizenry, opposition parties, civil society, regional and international bodies.
The challenge will be how these stakeholders re-define and re-strategise their roles to ensure a democratic transition in the long-term without giving up whether under a Tsvangirai or Mugabe government. As Mehler argues, “proponents of power-sharing usually expect a transitional power-sharing phase to be beneficial in facilitating an immediate transition to democracy”.
But we need to think about the implications both on short-term and long-term. Zimbabwe’s political developments over the past five years signify an evolution that favours greater democracy over time rather than an end of the transition paradigm. This means Zimbabwe rather faces a prolonged path to democratisation and with the right steps, the country’s prospects for a democracy without adjectives will be much better in the next five years.