WORDS can be used to communicate sincere intent or merely to deceive. The only objective way to evaluate the motive of spoken words is to look at the action that accompanies them. Talk that is not followed by action means nothing — it is deception.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said many wonderful things since he came to power almost a year ago about reforms, but none of those words have been accompanied by meaningful action, at least so far.
The objective question for those operating in the media space is whether or not Mnangagwa is sincere about reforming that space to allow it to grow into the vibrant and open industry that usually accompanies free and democratic societies.
Mnangagwa has made some positive pronouncements on media reforms.
In his state of the nation address during the opening of this parliament’s first session in Harare on September 18, Mnangagwa mentioned the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) as among other laws, including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), that will be amended during the ninth parliament session. He also spoke on the need to finalise and debate new Bills such as the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Bill, the Data Protection Bill and the Electronic Transactions and Electronic Commerce Bill.
Government has also announced plans to merge the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe with the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe.
However, the president in his address did not give details on the requisite legislative reforms. For instance, on the alignment of media laws with the current constitution, regulatory issues, including licencing matters, opening up the broadcasting space and community radio stations. Reforms are needed in all this.
So nothing much has changed on the media landscape, although the rate of harassment and arrest of journalists has gone down.
In terms of pluralism and diversity, the situation remains the same. The behaviour of the state-controlled media is telling. A quick look at the professional conduct of the state media under Mnangagwa’s government suggests that not much has changed since he came in. This was pointed by different election observer group which were around during the July general elections.
The Herald, together with other state-run newspapers, has not stopped its partisan coverage and propaganda. The national broadcaster, ZBC, has not opened up to plural opinion, accommodating dissenting views. It remains a servile parrot that merely repeats what government has said, a Zanu PF mouthpiece instead of public broadcaster.
ZBC does not even as the SABC which insists it is “independent and impartial” in all its broadcast these days. This is not just an untested view of critics or the opposition, but also an observation by neutrals.
The Commonwealth Observer Group described the extent of state media bias as “acute”.
The EU observer mission said: “State-owned TV, radio and newspapers, which dominate the media landscape, were heavily biased in favour of the ruling party.”
Two organisations from the United States, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, observed the elections and concluded: “State-owned media showed systematic and extreme bias in favour of the ruling party.”
Sadc observers were equally ungenerous: “The public broadcaster and the state-owned newspapers were in favour of one political party, contrary to the relevant provisions of the constitution, the Electoral Act, and the revised Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, which requires state-owned media to be impartial.”
African Union observers, who usually endorse even sham elections, found the extent of partiality so overwhelming they too called for reforms: “In light of the partisan and polarised nature of the media in Zimbabwe, consider full implementation of the Broadcasting Services Act and ensure equal access to the state broadcaster to all contestants during elections.”
These reports are unanimous in their condemnation of the abuse of state media by the Zanu PF government. This speaks to lack of reform and continuing business as usual in how the state media operate.
Mnangagwa is not a tired man. He has shown great energy and imagination when it comes to devising solutions to advance his economic policies.
The same energy with which he dug up the unconstitutional Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act to allow him to imprison, for 10 years, foreign currency dealers that refuse to accept his unreasonable claims that the bond note is trading at par with the United States dollar, must be put to work implementing the reforms, including in the media, that he has repeatedly promised.
The task is not a difficult one.
If the government is serious about media reforms then it must start that charity closer to home by ensuring state media serves the nation, not just Zanu PF. How difficult is that? It is not credible to outline ambitious plans for media reforms and new television stations while editors at state media continue to violate their constitutional and legal responsibilities for professional and impartial coverage with impunity.
It must be said Mnangagwa has been in power for the past year. If he failed to reform the editorial policy at state media over the past 12 months then it is unlikely he will accomplish any meaningful media reforms over the next five years.
It is the lowest hanging fruit. Setting up television and radio stations requires resources and thus it takes time, but reforming editorial policy does not, merely political will.
The problem at state media is not government interference in the form of stories delivered from Munhumutapa on flash drives. That does not happen, at least not in my experience. The real issue is job security.
The Ministry of Information has direct control over the employment of editors and senior managers, they are effectively political appointments. This presents an obvious problem. Editors are well aware that they are in their positions by virtue of political favour and will slant their editorial in favour of those who can hire and fire.
Currently, Zimpapers editors are sitting on the edge as the process to fire them is underway, although Mnangagwa has stalled it.
Contrary to the popular jibe that state media journalists are mindless buffoons, there are many thoughtful journalists that find themselves locked in an environment where job security dictates they follow the unwritten rules of survival. Those rules are very simple: leave your brains at the door.
It is easy to dismiss those who find themselves in these difficult situations as lacking in conviction and courage, but this is a hypocritical view. Even business leaders prostrate themselves before Zanu PF; the painful consequences of dissent are well-known. Journalists are no exception.
Reforming state media will require structural changes to prevent government interference, but that will take time.
However, the immediate solution that has always been available to Mnangagwa, assuming he is actually serious about reforms, is to appoint eminent and forceful individuals to state media boards as an interim measure.
The moment an editor knows their appointment came through an independent board and can only be reversed by the same, then they will do their work without fear of favour.
The current timid and submissive boards are clearly not up to the task. A good example would be Tazzen Mandizvidza’s recent troubles at the ZBC. The same board that resolved to retain him when other senior managers were being fired for plundering the broadcaster has suddenly changed its mind, four years later, after the exit of deputy chief secretary George Charamba from the powerful permanent secretary position. It is clear that the ZBC board is not independent; thus ineffective.
It is pointless to demand and hold out grand hopes for the repeal of Aippa or the licencing of community radios when even the most elementary steps have not been taken to indicate a change of direction by government. There is no political will to introduce media reforms, or any other reforms for that matter.
Edmund Kudzayi is former editor of the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper.