Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Zim Govt's 'Comfort + Control Zone' Over the Media

 By Takura Zhangazha*

The Zimbabwe Ministry of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services is in a comfort zone that its leaders probably didn’t think was realistically feasible a couple of years back.  This can be explained by the recent statement that the responsible cabinet minister Chris Mushowe made threatening to withhold parastatal advertisements from 'critical private media'. Or oddly that he would encourage Zanu PF supporters not to buy any private papers (I am not sure how many supporters of the ruling party actually do that voluntarily.)  

Whichever way one looks at it, the minister is making these statements not without elements of being in a comfort and control zone over the media but also with an arrogance that belies his mistaken perception that media freedom is a privilege and not a right. And it is fair to ask where is the government getting this arrogance from?

Or where the rather snide language of the permanent secretary in the same ministry to equate commercial radio stations with community radio stations comes from?

In some circles there has been debate in slight mimicry of South African political parlance, of ‘media capture’.  Not only along factional lines in the ruling or opposition parties but also in relation to business interests that affect editorial policy.  The jury is still out on the validity of this ‘media capture’ assertion but suffice to say it is worth looking into, even if briefly.

It all began with what it referred to as the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI), then under the leadership of the another minister, Jonathan Moyo who was officially the progenitor of the notorious Access to information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). 

He had sort of resurrected from his initial label as a ‘media hangman’ and with IMPI sought to endear himself with the mainstream media, an endeavour that on the face of it, was quite successful especially with the private media.  Never mind the stories and disputes that emerged from those members of Zimbabwe’s media profession that were to eventually be part of the panel. 

Beyond IMPI, which Moyo’s successors at the ministry are yet to allow to come to full policy implementation, there was another element that brought a new comfort zone to government in its relations with the mainstream media.  This was that of media ownership. 

The most recent example has been the launch of a couple of local commercial stations owned by AB Communications.  The others that are also now broadcasting are owned in part by the government controlled Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers). And in media analysis circles this is called multimedia or even cross media ownership especially if we consider the fact that Zimpapers also has a dominant newspaper division and that AB Communications has made public its intention to start a newspaper.

And both companies are angling for the yet to be issued national television licenses.  And they do have the makings of television production divisions, a sign that they have enough confidence (I don’t know from where) that they are likely to also acquire these licenses at a date to be determined by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ)/ government.

The other major player in Zimbabwe’s media industry Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) tried to branch into radio, particularly the local commercial aspect but was denied a license in what it considered controversial circumstances.  I am not sure if they are going to also try for television (a much more costly endeavour).

The end effect of these processes is that Zimbabwe’s media is under siege by existent and soon to be ‘media moguls’ in the form of Zimpapers and AB Communications. And due to serious challenges of viability and sustainability of private media as a business, independent and objective journalism is getting harder by the day.  Even those journalists that would wish to be effective freelance reporters and pursue their democratic public interest role to the hilt are now stymied by economic challenges and lack of resources to effectively do so.

It is those with resources that are not only spreading their wings across differing media platforms (newspaper to radio to television) but are also beginning to have uniform editorial policies that disable media diversity and in the final analysis determine what is ‘news’ in favour of their own political or economic interests.  While at the same time lauding ‘converged newsrooms' as technologically progressive when in  reality they stifle news diversity and place greater commercial pressure as opposed to public interest on the shoulders of editors and journalists. 

The immediate latter points are also then responsible for allegations of ‘factional capture’ of the media.  This is where it is a combination of business and political interests that determine news content.  Hence Minister Mushowe’s threat that linked a purportedly ‘over critical’ of government media with blanket advertising bans.
This is the background that informs central government’s media  ‘comfort and control zone'.  And the media has to urgently shrug this government off its back sooner rather than later in the interests of democratic free expression in our country.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)