The Zim media national question

The media, outside the question of ownership — is ideally the fourth arm of the state with a watchdog role over the executive, legislature and judiciary.

The pursuit of media freedom in Zimbabwe is a complex process that is forever shifting.

While on one hand, there are indicators of growth - considering the increased number of licensed broadcast players, yet on the other there are systemic challenges that claw back against prospects of transforming Zimbabwe's media sector into an industry.

It is firstly imperative, when assessing the state of media freedom in Zimbabwe to discuss the configuration of the sector, which in more ways than one reflect on the weakening of institutions in the country.

The media, outside the question of ownership — is ideally the fourth arm of the state with a watchdog role over the executive, legislature and judiciary.

This role and function has, however, lately been subjected to scholary debate, moreso in the digital age where mass dissemination of information is no longer the preserve of the mainstream media.

There is perhaps a "fifth '' estate as it were in the form of these new media actors, some of whom command greater audiences than traditionally established institutions.

Yet the role of journalism in its form and character remains the anchor of holding power accountable and giving truth prominence.

There is no question that this idealistic view of the media is a difficult proposition in any context.

Journalism is often confronted by political, economic and social pressures that at the end of the day could compromise how the media projects and portrays truth.

Yet still there are parameters that guide the media, never mind the socio-economic and political persuasions.

There are universal standards, the rules of the game that the media should conform to at a professional and legal level.

To this end journalistic media remains an institution and the fourth estate.

Institutions are guided by norms and values, standards in which they can be held accountable to.

This makes the Zimbabwean case unique. Legal provisions are to a large extent ignored and there is bare minimum respect to the professional code of conduct.

The media is structurally weak to withstand political pressure and the legislative mechanisms are inadequate to respond to the current and emerging challenges.

 There is conflation of all arms of the state, including the media.

 In what analysts have broadly described as state capture, Zimbabwean media is one such arm of the state that has at legislative, political economy and editorial levels been whipped to tow the line of the levers of power.

Events of November 2017 laid bare the structural deficits of our media.

This is something that was carried out in the statement by the military in announcing the commencement of "operation restore legacy" that the state media had been ordered to ignore a previous statement by the very same army in the previous days leading to the official start of the intervention.

Essentially, the ruling elite directly dictate editorial content.

There hasn't been further interogation on the frequency and extent at which there is this form of control of the media but the country's legislative framework provides space for entrenching media capture by the ruling elite.

Which then brings me to the first national question in respect of the media - the legislative environment.

Zimbabwe's media laws have been at the heart of contestations, more predominantly so when statutory regulation was entrenched.

 In Zimbabwe's case, statutory regulation had not been about enforcing journalistic standards but more as a proofing measure against  dissenting voices and/or critical media.

It is as a result that laws introduced at the height of political contestations in the country such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) have been legacy reform issues that continue to curtail any meaningful growth of the sector.

Aippa was arguably repealed, well a significant portion of that law, yet there are remnants of legacy issues such as media regulation and criminalisation of journalism that continue to stall progress towards realisation of rights to media freedom, access to information and freedom of expression.

 On regulation, there is consensus among media stakeholders that the country will implement media co-regulation, a principle which was approved by cabinet. 

However, the progress in realising the agreed principle has been slow and there is no clarity on the mechanics of how the merged regulation of statutory and self regulation will look like.

 On the other hand, criminalization of expression still founds expression in the country's statutes as obtained in the Data Protection Act and the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, which recently added patriotic provisions whose ambiguity threatens the enjoyment of freedom of expression.

The BSA is set for amendment.

This is yet another commendable development.

 Yet, these reforms are going to be effective only as much as they will respond to emerging issues such as convergence and media sustainability in the age of artificial intelligence.

The broadcasting regulatory framework has to be independent of interference from the executive as the current law exerts excessive powers on the minister.

 There has to be defined frameworks for licencing to the extent to safeguard against long periods of non licensing of new actors.

 Moreover, there is need to safeguard against multiple owners of scarce resource as frequency to ensure there is media diversity and not the obtaining scenario where the channels of expression are largely confined in a few hands.  Public service media needs holistic legislative and policy interventions aimed at guaranteeing editorial independence and rebuilding trust. The supreme law provides for the conduct of state media.

What lacks, however, is enabling legislation and policy frameworks that provide for practical steps towards implementation of these constitutional provisions.

It is only during the electoral period that there is an attempt to categorically provide practical measures for the media, in particular state media to oblige with.

 I make specific reference to state media for the reason that it is the only media that doesn't abide by the code of conduct enforced and administered by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ).

The other internal remedies are not within the public domain or are made outside the scrutiny of the public that these codes are supposed to serve.

During the electoral period, the media is supposed to abide by the Electoral Act and the enabling statutory instrument (33 of 2008).

One of the measures to ensure implementation of constitutional provisions on equality and fairness is the publication of the broadcasting schedules showing how airtime is going to be fairly distributed across the participating actors. 

This is a practical step in demonstrating intent towards realizing equitable coverage of parties to the elections. What remains a challenge though is enforcement and the August 2023 elections provided yet another example of how there is minimal compliance with the publicizsed schedule and how there is minimal implementation and adherence with the statutory instrument.

Which speaks to the second media national question - political will.  While it is difficult to measure or quantify political will, there is enough evidence to suggest both the existence and non thereof of the requisite political appetite to implement reforms.

 Government has commendably created platforms for dialogue and engagement, including creating spaces for media stakeholders and representatives to input in technical processes that are normally a preserve of government technocrats in most countries.

This suggests willingness to consult and engage.

There is the media and police action plan, which again has yielded positive results in respect of the safety and security of journalists.

Political parties have also made pledges to support media freedom and so has other institutions supporting democracy.

Yet, there is retrograssive legal provisions and policies to sustain the status quo or further curtail media freedoms. 

There's still a culture of impunity for crimes against journalists and hovering legal threats to enjoyment of journalistic freedoms.

Government bureaucracy remains a structural impediment to access information and Zimbabwe remains among the closed societies.  Despite these challenges, there is a window of opportunity for media reforms.

Addressing the legislative challenges and underpinning the reform process on sincere political willingness to have an open society, sustainable and diverse media is what the country urgently needs. That is the Zimbabwe's media national question.

 *Nigel Nyamutumbu heads the secretariat of a network of nine  journalistic professional associations and media support organizations, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe. He has over a decade experience in journalism, media research, analysis and advocacy. He can be contacted on [email protected] and/or +263772 501 557.

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