The media has an imperative role to play in shaping the societies in which we live.
In 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy, president Nelson Mandela stated: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference … It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
On August 18, Angela Jimu, a photojournalist with a local daily, was beaten up by police while covering a demonstration in Harare. In Zimbabwe, such attacks against independent journalists and the media have become normal.
In 1980, then prime minister Robert Mugabe was asked by the Swedish magazine Contact whether he would permit “an open, critical press”. He replied, “Yes, sure. This you will see quite a lot of open criticism in the press. I am for the freedom of the press, really, freedom of expression.”
Looking back at Mugabe’s time in office, the nonagenarian has not been the champion of media freedom that he set out to be. His actions speak louder than words and there have been many similar and worse violations against media practitioners than that of Jimu’s most recent assault.
One of Mugabe’s problems is that he confuses independence with freedom. He likes to refer to himself and his party members as “liberators” of Zimbabwe. Let us be clear: independence is strictly speaking self-governance and sovereignty over a specific territory. Freedom is much more extensive; it involves “the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government”.
Mugabe’s interpretation of liberation gives him the impression that it is somehow justifiable to oppress Zimbabweans as long as the oppressor is a native of the country (although Mugabe would exclude white natives from this category).
However, as explained, true liberation and freedom is much broader than independence as it goes beyond self-rule.
Freedom means that Zimbabweans should not be oppressed by anyone, irrespective of the origin of the rulers.
Political scientists claim, as is the case with milk, that political leaders run the risk of becoming “sour”. The shelf-life of a president/prime minister is typically 10 years (or even shorter).
In a (pseudo) democracy, a leader that performs well has nothing to worry about (unless there are two-term office limits) as voters would presumably affirm a leader’s good work by voting for him/her.
But, when a leader is incompetent or cruel and consequently unpopular, they might use a combination of bribes, threats, or violence in order to cling on to power, further augmenting the souring process.
The longer a non-performing leader, intent on staying in office, stays in power, the more mistakes he/she is apt to make, so the more he/she has to hide, the more people he/she will owe, the more violence he/she needs to use, the more he/she will have to subdue the truth.
As Mugabe and his cronies became sourer, the Zimbabwean media became more critical about their activities. In response, the regime increasingly clamped down on their ability to report without fear or intervention.
Based on Mugabe’s wrongful interpretation of “liberation” (ie self-rule/sovereignty), he also set out to “iberate” the media. The 1980s kicked off by replacing a largely white (minority) dominated media, not with a black (majority)-dominated media geared to serve the public interest, but with a pro-Mugabe/Zanu PF media.
Already in 1981 the then editor of the Manica Post, Jean Maitland-Stuart, was forced to resign after she criticised the use of North Korean experts to train the notorious Fifth Brigade (which was used during the Gukurahundi massacres).
In 1985, the first black editor of the Sunday Mail, Willie Musarurwa, was also fired after reporting on financial scandals related to Air Zimbabwe. Such early examples should have served as a warning as to future prospects for the media.
From 2000 onwards, Mugabe’s regime introduced numerous pieces of legislation with the intent of further restricting media freedom and freedom of expression.
In 2002 alone, Zanu PF introduced three infamous media gag laws, including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act, and the Broadcasting Services Act.
With the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in February 2009, media reform was supposed to have been a priority. Initially, the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC-T promoted some reforms, but as time went by they became less vocal about the issue.
It might have to do with the fact that independent media stopped treating the MDC-T as the underdog outside of government. This meant that the MDC-T, as is the case for Zanu PF, had to be scrutinised where they made mistakes and when they failed to deliver.
Tsvangirai apparently disliked this and wanted the media to treat him and his party with kid gloves. In fact, his aides have on a few occasions threatened and even physically assaulted journalists.
Another reason why the MDC-T perhaps failed to push for media reform is because there were some slight changes within the media environment; giving the (wrongful) impression that progress has been made. For example, during the GNU years, Zanu PF licenced five new newspapers, including the Daily News and NewsDay, under the punitive Aippa.
While the launch of these newspapers was important, they could only reach a limited (largely urban) public as newspapers continue to be expensive for the majority of Zimbabweans.
Radio and television therefore remain the most important media to reach the Zimbabwean public. This is why Zanu PF clings on to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and would only licence new radio stations operated by Mugabe’s cronies.
While there were no new independent television stations launched in Zimbabwe during the GNU years, Zanu PF allowed the entry of two new radio stations into the market, including ZiFM (owned by Zanu PF’s Supa Mandiwanzira) and StarFM (owned by Zimpapers, Zanu PF’s chief mouthpiece).
To be clear, there were several anti-Zanu PF representatives that had some air time on ZiFM and StarFM, perhaps more so than ZBC. This serves to give the illusion that these radio stations are somewhat objective.
But, by and large, these radio stations are pro-Zanu PF. They allow Zanu PF to set the agenda and public discourse at the expense of the opposition and other alternative viewpoints. Closer to elections, they also become more political.
As a result of the lack of reforms during the GNU years, Zanu PF continues its hegemonic hold over public discourse. The big loser, of course, is the media and, ultimately, also the Zimbabwean public. The role of the media is to speak truth to power and to keep the public informed. When governments interfere with the media, the latter loses its value.
Thirty-four years after Zimbabwe’s Independence and his interview with Contact, Mugabe continues to rule a broken nation. Mugabe could have used the media to promote liberal values and to do nation building, he could have asked the media to promote reconciliation and to report the truth.
Yet, he has chosen not to. The nonagenarian (and his inner circle) has been in power for so long that he needs a media that will only tell the public what he wants them to believe.
Public information then becomes lies (or at the very least half-truths), all to serve the ruling elite. It is in this context that ordinary journalists, like Jimu, will continue to be victims of a ruling elite, which “expired” a long time ago.
Hartwell is an independent political analyst.