ZIMBABWE’S media companies are seriously struggling for survival in an inexorably deteriorating economic environment characterised by far-reaching technological disruptions, lack of alternative funding models, a hostile political climate, ethical challenges and corruption creeping onto the profession, an editor has said.
Delivering the Bornwell Chakaodza Memorial Lecture at an event organised by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe at a local hotel in Harare yesterday, Zimbabwe Independent editor Dumisani Muleya said the media is under siege from a plethora of troubles, with the economy now being its biggest threat.
In a paper, titled Media Sustainability in the Current Environment, Muleya also said although there has been incremental gains in the media reform campaign process, serious problems still remain as shown by retrenchments of journalists, slashing of salaries and delayed pays, as well as threats and arrest of media practitioners.
“Current business models in Zimbabwe and elsewhere are being challenged by the new ways people communicate and consume content, thanks to hi-tech innovations,” Muleya said in a presentation a day after World Press Freedom Day.
“The convergence of media and entertainment on cyberspace – the so-called information and data superhighway – and telecommunications has triggered disruptions and accelerated changes in consumption and advertising distribution patterns.”
Muleya said the only way out is to adjust and survive, or resist change and die.
“Those who want not only to survive, but also to thrive in this new media environment will have to embrace technology and change, while ensuring creative destruction. The name of the game is simple: disrupt yourself internally and adjust to survive, or be rudely disrupted from outside and risk extinction,” he said.
“The media upheavals, triggered by a revolution in technology, are transforming, fundamentally and irrevocably the operating environment, as well as nature of journalism and its ethics. So our media ecosystem and the terrain itself has now become a chaotic landscape evolving at a fast and furious pace.
“The political economy of the media has changed dramatically. Media organisations are now struggling as audiences migrate online, while advertisers lag behind – creating a disequilibrium which brings instability in relation to the supply, demand, and prices of media products.”
Turning to local media house, Muleya said the situation is has deteriorated badly.
“As we speak Zimbabwe’s media sector is going through serious economic times as leading companies, including Zimpapers, Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), Associated Newspaper of Zimbabwe and the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), are forced to retrench, slash salaries and embrace convergence as part of restructuring, downsizing and cost-cutting measures for survival,” he said.
“In order to adjust and survive, media houses have taken measures to cut costs through retrenchments, removal of benefits and changing business models. Streamlining is the only way out.”
Muleya said new ways of doing business are needed if the media is to survive.
“This requires thorough analysis of the market and competition, and developing a clear vision and strategy to move forward,” he said.
“Disruptions affect the viability and strength of the media. Moreover, they have serious implications for ethics, professional standards and regulation. Investigative journalism also becomes one of the major casualties of the current shifts and changes on the media landscape.
“A strong media is critical for every society or country. It is of vital importance to Zimbabwe. So the media needs to be protected not only from these disruptions, but also from political and commercial influences, as well as special interest groups.”
Muleya said a result of the situation journalists are suffering and compromising ethics.
“Due to viability problems, poor remuneration and delayed salaries, journalists in Zimbabwe are now increasingly compromising ethics. Professional standards are no longer observed as they used to,” he said.
“Corruption is also now creeping into the media. We never used to really have this problem in the past, but now it’s happening on a petty, systematic and grand scale.
Of course, corruption is all over society and the media is not an island, but if we allow it to become entrenched we will end up like some West African states where this criminal evil is now part and parcel of life.
“As Chinua Achebe would say, my frank and honest opinion is that anybody who says that corruption in Zimbabwe, including within the media, has not yet reached alarming proportions, is either a fool, a crook or else does not live in this country.”
Muleya said the new constitution guarantees media freedom and freedom of expression, although government is taking forever to finish realignment of laws.
“All repressive and archaic laws like the criminal defamation legislation, which has been declared unconstitutional, must be struck off the statute books. A number of these press laws still remain, hence media tyranny effectively continues undiminished.
“But the biggest threat to media survival now is the economy. Well, this means the current regime remains the biggest threat to the media since it is the architect or author of this economic crisis.”
He added: “Old habits die hard, so they say. From time to time journalists are still threatened and arrested, not for criminal wrongdoing but for merely doing their job. And as we have seen in recent times every journalist is at risk, not just private media reporters as it used to be the case.
“We have heard of late threats against journalists, for instance for reporting on President Robert Mugabe’s health, foreign trips or age; pressure and intimidation over such mundane things, or indeed bullying for reporting on security issues.
“Only recently Mugabe threatened to gag journalists and all other Zimbabwean citizens Chinese-style through stringent internet and social media controls, claiming there was abuse of cyber-platforms. This reminds us that latent and sometime brazen threats to be media remain abound.”
On media regulation, Muleya said: “Our position on media regulation is very clear: governments should never be given space or an opportunity to control media. That’s not their job.
“So we want self-regulation, we do it ourselves; we set up our own regulatory system, our own rules and we decide how these rules look like and how they are implemented.”-Staff Reporter