Zim media post COVID-19 and the media reform agenda

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Rashweat Mukundu

AS we mark World Press Freedom Day, the world is in a  flux owing to the COVID19 pandemic. By Rashweat Mkudu

Zimbabwe has, up to this time, been spared the full wrath of the coronavirus crisis which has devastated much of the western world, Asia and Latin America.

A key aspect and learning point in the struggle against the pandemic is the importance of communication both in
terms of government capacity to share information on the crisis and its capacity to listen to societal needs and concerns and equally the need to communicate a message that instils confidence in the leadership in a time of crisis.

This is not an easy task in a polarised society where we often talk and act at cross purpose. We, therefore, have
to analyse the communication around COVID-19 and the changes in our media sector in the context of our sociopolitical culture that of a polarised society where the smallest of issues become emotive. Zimbabweans rarely reach out but are quick to fall-in and fire from their trenches.

Will the media survive COVID-19?
A key change for the Zimbabwe media post-COVID-19, if we ever get to that period, is the economic sustainability of media and with that which media business models will arise.

The mitigation of COVID-19 necessitates that as many socio-economic activities either be shut down or slowed significantly.

Reduced economic activity means that industry is affected and its spending power more so on advertising is greatly reduced.

Media consumers are equally a ected with many families in  nancial distress and cutting back on spending on
media products.

The media faces momentous questions on its future that revolve on its capacity to maintain critical staff levels,
news skills and equipment that enables cost effective news gathering and sharing as well as developing a more intimate relationship with media audiences that enables harvesting of resources from a much more broader base than established business.

The concept of virtual newsrooms has been put into more practice under COVID-19 and it is time that the media
explore this possibility as a cost-cutting measure. While different in ownership and editorial policy the sector needs to speak with one voice on its future.

The surveillance society
COVID-19 has spawned a new frenzy of State surveillance purportedly to curb the spread of the virus by monitoring people movement.

Technology such as facial recognition and use of mobile phones to track citizens, hitherto frowned upon, has suddenly found relevance in a non-controversial manner that, however, has far reaching consequences, especially in authoritarian societies.

In Zimbabwe, the government gazetted COVID-19 statutory instrument that controls not only people’s movement and the conduct of business, but also granting the State powers to intervene in many areas that include invasion of personal privacy and control of information. Using the same regulations, one person has been arrested for sharing “false” information with President Emmerson Mnangagwa publicly instructing the intelligence to hunt this man and he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Finance minister Mthuli Ncube says the government used a mathematical algorithm based on mobile phone databases to identify who benefits from government welfare grants. This wide spread collection of information leads to the questions as to how the government accessed this information, was there consent by those whose data was accessed, and is there a firewall to keep this information for this specific purpose and is there a sunset clause in those policies that puts an end to the collection of such personal information and what it can be used for.

The growing acceptance of surveillance and State invasion of privacy under the COVID-19 interventions may mean the continued use of such information to target dissenting voices and weaponisation of such information for political ends.

The emerging advocacy issue for human rights defenders is to ensure that the state is more transparent on its use of personal information that is collected and that such policy implementation has independent oversight.

Media policy changes and the end of an era?
Zimbabwe’s media sector will likely see some changes as informed by the proposed media reforms. While not meeting the best of international standards, the proposed freedom of information law as well as the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill is far better as compared to what is obtaining.

While the likes of Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa and permanent secretary Nick Mangwana are still part of the same Zanu PF government they have to be commended for reaching out and engaging this again as compared to dinosaurs such as George Charamba now Deputy Cabinet Secretary.

Media policy reforms are a low hanging fruit that Mnangagwa must use to demonstrate his commitment to reform.
this being said Zimbabwe is yet to see much movement in the transformation of the State-owned and State controlled media.

The propaganda machinery of the ruling elite remains steeped in the Soviet era which Charamba confessed was advised to him by Fidel Castro.

It is not inclusive and now redundant as a result of new digital and social media platforms and a push back by society.

Charamba as an example spends lots of time on social media wars with citizens, hardly communicating, but haranguing them.