With Zimbabwe’s 2023 general elections beckoning, it is imperative to unpack the question of the media’s role, mandate, and parameters of operation in covering election related matters.
The emerging contestations on the extent to which the public broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) is covering opposition political players is one issue that has attracted counter narratives.
In this submission, we zoom into legal provisions that outline the parameters that the public broadcaster should operate within in its coverage of elections.
Relevant laws include section 160 E-K of the Electoral Act, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act [Chapter 2:12], Part IVA of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Act [Chapter 2:12], the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Media Coverage of Elections Regulations S1 33 of 2008), as well as the Fifth Schedule of the Broadcasting Services Act [Chapter 12:06], (BSA).
These laws collectively provide for amongst other things; the type of election programmes to be broadcast on television and radio; equal allocation of airtime to parties and candidates; the need for fair, accurate and balanced programming; rules for election adverts for the public broadcaster and parameters relating to broadcasting of political and election matter.
Broadcasting of election matter
Generally, broadcasters are required to give reasonable and equal opportunities for the broadcasting of election matters to all political parties contesting the election during an electoral period. Election matter is defined in the Broadcasting Services Act as:
(a) Soliciting votes or advocating support for a candidate or political party at the election;
- New-look Beitbridge border impresses financiers
- Warming Africa threatens insurers’ quest for profit
- Zim firmly on road to 2023 polls
- Zim firmly on road to 2023 polls
(b) Outlining the policy of a candidate or a political party;
(c) A meeting held or to be held in connection with the election
Obligations of public broadcasters on election programming and coverage
In terms of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act and its accompanying regulations, public broadcasters are required to;
(a) Afford all political parties and independent candidates contesting an election, ‘free access to their broadcasting services’ on conditions prescribed by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
(b) Ensure that an election broadcast [programme or advertisement] is clearly defined and announced as an election broadcast, both at its introduction and conclusion.
Further, while a broadcaster is not obliged to publish any political advertisements, once they decide to do so however, they must offer without discrimination, the same terms, and conditions of publication to all the political parties and candidates contesting the election, including on the price charged for the services.
Election programmes and advertisements to be broadcast by public broadcasters
In terms of the of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Media Coverage of Elections) Regulations, 2008, election programmes and advertisements include programmes;
(a) Where political parties or candidates present their election manifestos and policies to the electorate without being interviewed.
(b) Discussing the elections.
(c) Where candidates or the representatives of political parties are interviewed on the elections.
Further, each station of a public broadcaster shall allocate four hours of ‘available purchasable time’ during an election period for election advertisements.
This time shall be distributed equitably to political parties and candidates contesting the election in question, taking into consideration the number of constituencies being contested by the respective political parties.
Public broadcasters are, however, prohibited from transmitting an election advertisement immediately before or after another election advertisement.
Allocation of airtime on public broadcasting television and radio.
The 2008, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Media Coverage of Elections) Regulations, also require public broadcasters to:
(a) Equitably allocate airtime to all contesting political parties or candidates to broadcast election matter.
(b) Transmit election programs during prime time.
(c) Not broadcast election programmes or advertisements that incite violence or advocates hatred based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion or political conviction.
(d) Give Zec a broadcast schedule for election programmes and recording dates for all pre-recorded programmes for each station within seven days after the nomination day or first nomination day, or within such longer period as determined by Zec.
(e) Not broadcast election programmes on a polling day.
Conduct of news media during an election period
In terms of Section 16 F of the Zec Act, the following is mandated;
(a) All news media must ensure equitable treatment of all political parties and candidates with respect to the extent, timing and prominence of coverage accorded.
(b) Reports on the election should be factually accurate, complete and fair;
(c) A clear distinction should be made between factual reporting on the election and editorial comment on it.
(d) Inaccuracies in reports on the election in news media must be rectified without delay and with due prominence;
(e) Political parties and candidates should be afforded a reasonable right of reply to any allegations made in news media that they consider to be false.
(f) News media should not promote political parties or candidates that encourage violence or hatred against any class of persons in Zimbabwe;
(g) News media should avoid language that encourages racial, ethnic or religious prejudice or hatred; incites violence; or that is likely to lead to undue public contempt towards any political party, candidate or class of person in Zimbabwe.
The media, particularly the public broadcaster is legally and professionally obliged to afford equal opportunities for all political parties and contesting candidates.
Implementing these legal provisions will not only contribute to strengthening the media’s role in ensuring a credible election but will restore trust and confidence within the public broadcaster.
Citizens need to make informed decisions based on factual and credible reporting.
Above all, impartiality of the public broadcaster is not a privilege but a right entrenched in our constitution.
*The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) is a network of nine journalistic professional associations and media freedom advocacy organisations united in defense of freedom of expression. You can contact MAZ on www.mazw.org, email [email protected] or on Facebook: Media Alliance of Zimbabwe Twitter: MAZ_Zim