THE public media is in violation of Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections as it has failed to afford equal and unbiased coverage of the March 29 harmonised elections. Media monitoring groups, analysts and opposition parties accused national broadcaster, the ZBC, and the Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers) of biased reporting, qualitatively and quantitatively in favour of the ruling Zanu PF.
The ZBC is 100% owned by the government while Zimpapers – which is 51% owned by government – owns two national dailies, The Herald and The Chronicle, and two national weeklies, The Sunday Mail and The Sunday News. It also runs the weekly Manica Post and the vernaculars Kwayedza and Umthunywa.
The public media were also accused of contravening provisions of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA).
The Sadc guidelines require all political parties to have “equal access and opportunity to the state media.” However, in Zimbabwe opposition parties have hardly been covered equitably by the public media as has been Zanu PF.
The Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ) has over the past month complained of what it termed unfair coverage of the pre-election period, especially in the public media. It called on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to put an end to the “intolerable” bias demonstrated by the national broadcaster, the ZBC, and the government controlled newspapers.
“Because government controlled media institutions are funded by public money and already massively dominate Zimbabwe’s media landscape, it is imperative they provide fair, balanced and equitable coverage of all parties contesting the elections,” the MMPZ said in its latest weekly report.
“But at present their grossly biased coverage in favour of the ruling party constitutes a clear violation of Zimbabwe’s own electoral and broadcasting laws, let alone the Sadc guidelines on the holding of democratic elections, to which Zimbabwe is a signatory.”
On Friday February 29 all of ZBC radio and television stations, according to MMPZ, abruptly suspended normal programming to provide live coverage of Zanu PF’s election manifesto launch that lasted for four hours.
By comparison, the ZBC gave no live coverage to the launch of independent presidential candidate Simba Makoni’s campaign in Bulawayo the following day or for the MDC campaign led by Morgan Tsvangirai at Sakubva Stadium, Mutare, the week before.
The MMPZ said between February 24 and March 2, ZTV devoted 64 minutes of news bulletins to reporting favourably on Zanu PF’s campaigns, compared to just three minutes given to the two MDC factions and eight minutes to Makoni.
The government-controlled daily newspapers, The Herald and The Chronicle, performed no better as their coverage of campaigns during the same week also reflected a heavy bias towards Zanu PF.
Of the 51 stories the newspapers carried on the elections, 31 were favourable to Zanu PF campaigns, while the remaining 20 were distributed among the electoral preparations of the two MDC camps, Makoni and the other smaller parties. Nineteen of these potrayed a negative image of the parties covered, the only exception being the launch of Makoni’s campaign in Bulawayo and Harare.
“Such prominence given to the ruling party constitutes grossly inequitable, unfair and partisan coverage of important election issues and essentially reflects the way the national public broadcaster has been reporting all election campaign activities,” the MMPZ said. “The bias shown by the government media reinforces the public demand that the ZEC applies the laws governing media coverage of elections, as well as to respond to calls to allow greater media diversity in the coverage of elections.”
The ZEC last Friday gazetted Media Coverage of Elections Regulations which, among other things, compels a public broadcaster to ensure that contesting political parties or candidates are treated equitably in the allocation of airtime for broadcasting election matters.
Michael Mhike, a political scientist, traced biased reporting on the part of The Herald, The Chronicle and the ZBC to the days of the liberation struggle.
“The Rhodesia Herald used to broadcast Rhodesian propaganda and the Bulawayo Chronicle also used to disseminate Rhodesian propaganda,” Mhike said. “What is happening is simply what happened in Rhodesia except that today we are in Zimbabwe and Mugabe in charge.”
Mhike said despite laws in place to curb biased reporting in the public media, it would be difficult to eradicate it.
“I don’t see that coming to an end, but there is room for improvement. We can see more coverage of the opposition, bit it would not match the airtime and space Zanu PF will get,” he added.
The Tsvangirai-led MDC recently wrote to ZBC chief executive officer Henry Muradzikwa complaining against biased coverage of the March 29 presidential, legislative and council elections. The party’s director of information and publicity Luke Tamborinyoka accused the national broadcaster of not adhering to the Sadc guidelines on the conduct of free and fair polls.
“At that historic (Sadc) meeting in Mauritius in August 2004, President Mugabe committed himself to these guidelines,” Tamborinyoka said. “You have a party to play in making sure that Zimbabweans truly express their legitimate will in the watershed election.”
This week, the Makoni campaign team, in advertisements in private newspapers, also accused the ZBC of unfair coverage.
“Mugabe now prefers a Tsvangirai victory to a Makoni one, hence now the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings is giving significant airtime to the MDC and nothing to the Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn campaign,” the Makoni camp said.
Government control of the media is not limited to Zimbabwe alone, as it is also the norm in other southern African countries.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) passed a law in June 1996 providing that the “setting up and management of the means of communication required by press agencies, broadcasting agencies and press distribution services as well as print works and the book trade (should be) free”.
This resulted in an exponential increase in the number of private newspapers, radio and television stations over the past 10 years, in addition to the publicly owned station, Radiotelevision Nationale Congolaise (RTNC).
In the 2006 the DRC elections, the RTNC did not escape political control.
This was in violation of the 1996 law.
“During the Mobutu regime, publicly owned media meant state-owned media, which in truth meant that the media was controlled by the ruling party,” reads a book titled Outside the Ballot Box – Preconditions for Elections in Southern Africa 2005/6, published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa. “The RTNC was therefore initially controlled by the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR) – the Mobutu party, and today it is controlled by the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Democratic (PPRD) – the party of President Joseph Kabila.”
The book cited how biased the public media was when guards of Kabila and those of his challenger in the second round Jean-Pierre Bemba confronted one another with heavy artillery in Kinshasa – the DRC capital.
“The official reports published by the Ministry of the Interior announced 23 deaths, mainly those of police officers…From 27 July the media houses controlled by the two main challengers, Bemba and Kabila, tried to compete against each other by increasingly showing more violent pictures and unashamedly using bloody pictures of policemen stoned to death by unruly mobs or pictures of slaughtered civilians during the two wars of 1996 and 1998,” read the book.
The idea to screen the gory pictures, the book claimed emanated from the publicly owned, but ruling party controlled the RTNC who chose such visuals to introduce its news bulletins.