Considerations on the Future of Zimbabwe’s Media Landscape.
A presentation to @263Chat Live Event, in collaboration with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands An event of the Media Diversity Campaign
Wednesday, 27 November 2013, HyperCube Tech-Hub, Belgravia, Harare.
By Takura Zhangazha,
Mr Convenor, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
In my brief remarks, let me begin by thanking the conveners of this important discussion for inviting me to share a few perspectives on Zimbabwe’s media landscape and its future prospects. As an outgoing director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe, let me also hasten to add that while the views I will express here will have resonance with the values espoused by my employer, I am however speaking largely in my own personal capacity.
There are a number of angles from which to tackle the important issue that @263Chat and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands have gathered us here and in the virtual world for. But perhaps the most important or if not so at least urgent, is that of context. Or as philosophers, academics and prophets would want to call it, ‘the now’.
Where we look at the present circumstances of our media landscape, there is a measure of optimism about the possibility of its reform. Either by way of sometimes over elaborate Ministerial statements of intent or by way of the near impossibility of keeping media space in Zimbabwe as closed as it is today given the phenomenal leaps in technology and new media that all of us are contemporary witnesses to. Our context is therefore one that exudes more the inevitability of reform than it does the retention of the status quo.
There are however complex dimensions to this rather politicized optimism. I define it as politicized optimism because unfortunately it seems to rely on the every word of the current Minister of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services. This may not be a bad thing, if the minister in question did not have such a bad history with Zimbabwe’s media.
Or if his own party was not at ‘sixes and sevens’ trying to explain its actual attitude toward freedom of expression after a Constitutional Court ruling decriminalizing insulting the President. But as with most stated policy intentions of government, we would be correct to hold fast to our principles of democratic freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information while negotiating whatever policy frameworks are placed before us. And as with all things political, we deserve the right to democratically refuse that which is not in the best democratic or public interest of our country’s citizens.
But again, I must emphasize that there will be some form of progress in relation to the media landscape. The government has already stated its intention to expand the media. And quantitatively so. In part the previous government did the same with the re-introduction of a formerly banned newspaper among a host of other new ones, some of which have since stopped existing.
What we will however definitely see going forward, is an increase in radio and a sprinkling of television stations. Primarily by way of licensing. We do not know about the viability of such licensed stations, as was the case with the licensing of the print media houses, some of which have regrettably closed due to economic dire straits and multiple regulation by the state.
The quantitative increase in both broadcasters at the commercial and community level will however not occur with a simultaneous improvement in the qualitative aspect of the media landscape. Key questions around multiple, repressive and bureaucratic media regulation will remain in vogue.
I will give the example of our multiple regulatory environment where anyone intending to set up any media house has to contend with at least three statutory bodies related to the media or directly affecting the media. From the constitutional Zimbabwe Media Commission, through to the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
These three interlinked regulatory frameworks are governed each by their own bureaucracies, none of which have ever demonstrated an intention to holistically meet the international best practices set up (with our governments endorsement) through the auspices of UNESCO or the International Telecommunications Union.
Furthermore, the envisaged quantitative expansion does not necessarily guarantee media diversity as defined by our colleagues at MISA Zimbabwe wherein the media landscape need not be dominated by one company let alone be characterized by one version of events or the news due to multi-media ownership.
What obtains in ‘the now’ is not a good sign, wherein there is already evidence of multi-media ownership by bigger media related companies which in some cases own newspapers as well as radio stations. With the new calls for local commercial radio broadcasting licences, there is definitely going to be a flurry by larger companies who are already in other forms of media (including telecommunications) to cross either from production or print to broadcasting. What you will read in a paper will almost be the same as what you hear on radio. Whoever owns it.
On the brighter side for media professionals, there is anticipation that with the quantitative expansion of the media, employment opportunities will increase for the multitudes that are leaving or have long left training institutions but remain unemployed.
In tandem with such a welcome expansion, colleagues in the media need to close ranks to defend the values of their profession from either predatory profiteering tendencies overwhelming the media or state benevolence and therefore unofficial censorship.
This they can do through remembering their own version of the Hippocratic oath, their Media Code of Conduct as collectively established by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe.
They must also seek the highest levels of professionalism and fair remuneration through their representative union, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists because an expansion of the media does not always mean better remuneration. It might mean more the entrenchment of corporate profit value to the media that neither improves services or enhances the media's serving of the best public interest.
A penultimate but important point for me to emphasize in considerations on Zimbabwe’s media is the phenomenon that has become new or social media. Again, this is going to have a profound effect on the right of all Zimbabweans to express themselves by literary increasing the enjoyment of the said human right.
While large components of it remain in the realm of entertainment and non-media for development communication frameworks, it has already overcome its initial birth-pangs through the establishment of platforms such as @263Chat, Kubatana,HerZimbabwe, TechZim, ZimboJam, Three Men on a Boat among many others that are striving to give public interest information to younger generations of Zimbabweans.
There is no doubt that such platforms will soon compete as credible sources of news with the mainstream media. And that is a good thing as it will help provide not only alternative interpretations of events but significantly contribute to the resolving the problem of a lack of media diversity that we are facing in our country. I just hope the government does not decide to either ‘PRISM’ or ‘GHQ’ them.
In conclusion, Mr. Convenor, just a quick reminder on the main points of my presentation. I am persuaded that because optimism is a key function of humanity, we have to be optimistic about the future of the media in Zimbabwe. Our optimism must however avoid politicization and must not negate the democratic values of freedom of expression, media freedom, inclusive of fully exploring democratic media self regulation and access to information. Profit and quantity will dominate the media in the next year or so, inclusive of a lack of media diversity, a continued carrot and stick attitude by the state toward the media and a multiple regulatory framework. If we however stand by democratic values and principles, our optimism will not be in vain, nor reliant on the cult of personality.
*Takura Zhangazha is the outgoing Director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe. The views expressed here are however his own and not those of the VMCZ.