By Takura Zhangazha*
Zimbabwe’s media and media related organizations this week, and correctly so, join the rest of the world in commemorating World Press Freedom Day 2016. They do so, as is their custom by holding various press club debates, marches, road shows and distributing relevant publicity material to members of the public. These activities are a long standing tradition and practice since the early 2000s wherein journalists and media-related professionals undertake to show their all important relevance to our national democracy.
Within the context of the 2016 commemorative events our media environment has undergone a semblance of incremental change. Constitutional court judgments have led to the striking down of some of criminal defamation laws from our statutes. These legal developments are regrettably still to translate into a change to the culture of impunity against freedom of expression in our country. Especially where it concerns political and social media driven expression.
In relation to the functionality of the mainstream media, the new constitution, while being of incremental importance, has not also come with change for the slightly better in relation to sustainability. The private print media is currently functioning on an economic wing and a prayer. The state controlled and also funded/subsidized media is also facing similar sustainability challenges though to a lesser extent.
The private radio stations are also barely keeping it together in a highly competitive environment for what is largely an urban market. They have also chosen to the greater extent to remain focused on younger audiences and entertainment driven content in order to maintain what they consider higher levels of market relevance.
Our media organizations, in their various interest areas are also facing the challenge of grappling with diminishing donor and member funding or support.
The government on the other hand, appears to be in no rush to undertake any transformative changes to the media landscape. Both by way of the law as well as the culture of disdain for freedom of expression and access to information. After somewhat successfully persuading media stakeholders to the now stalled and probably irretrievable Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) process, government no longer sees any urgency in broader media reform.
Its functional premise is to treat media freedom as a privilege and not a right. So everywhere, journalists have to retain that caution, and always remember the weight of the state on their backs.
Instead it is focused more on dealing with the matter of digital migration. This is largely because that is the only current revolutionary aspect of the media industry at the moment. The expansion of television access, its potential profitability and the generation of new media content is obviously something that the government is keen on controlling.
In all of this, the Zimbabwean media is still faced with challenges that are no doubt familiar but increasingly muted after the IMPI process. The first and most significant one is regrettably an internal one. The media still has to literally claim its space and territory as the fourth estate. Not just by way of reporting and bringing power to account. But also by way of strengthening its existent institutions such as the journalists’ unions, editors forums, media associations and even publishers associations. Without doing so, the media will never be accorded the respect it duly deserves. Even in as incremental a democracy as has become ours.
Secondly, all media stakeholders are faced with the challenge of not having a holistic and shared understanding of the future of the impact of digitization on the media. Not just in relation to television and radio but also the expanding and inevitably influential role that the internet shall have on Zimbabwean society. Any inability to face this tackle and challenge head on will lead in part to the media and its key stakeholders being left to play second fiddle to commercial interests in the industry.
In the third instance, the media has to begin to think much more creatively about its sustainability in our current economic and social context.
State and donor funding for the mainstream media is showing no sings of immediate improvement. Treating the media solely as a business as opposed to matching that with a clear public interest role is going to be the sine qua non of many media owners going forward. In this, journalists shall be compelled to become more in tune with the thinking of the publishers and only oppose them at the risk of losing their jobs. Media stakeholders need to examine new ways of media sustainability and ownership/shareholding that takes into greater account the media’s public interest and promotion of democratic government role. This includes state funded and state controlled media.
In the final analysis however it is the fact of Zimbabwe’s media and its stakeholders standing by the democratic values and principles that establish the fourth estate that may move long awaited reforms a little faster. If not with the government, then at least with the broader national public understanding and support.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)