Since the beginning of this year, stakeholders have initiated a number of interventions aimed at strengthening the media’s democratic role in covering elections scheduled for July 30.
By Nigel Nyamutumbu
These interventions were informed by the need to address the media challenges noted by local and regional observers during the past elections.
Interestingly, even the elections management body itself, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) in their media monitoring report of the 2013 elections highlight that the media fell short in terms of fulfilling its lawful and professional obligation to provide accurate, balanced and credible information to enable citizens make informed decisions.
In reflecting upon some of these challenges, media stakeholders, particularly those working under the banner of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) developed a media and elections strategy, which sought to ensure the media contributes to the holding of democratic elections in the country.
With support from funding and technical partners who include the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Affairs, the Swedish Embassy in Zimbabwe, International Media Support, Fojo Media Institute, Open Society of Southern Africa and the National Endowment for Democracy among others, various interventions have been embarked on to prepare the media for the July 30 plebiscite.
Among some of the activities carried out, there were several capacity strengthening and training initiatives that were conducted throughout the country.
These trainings targeted mainstream and alternative media, with at least 300 journalists, editors, broadcasters, bloggers and citizen journalists equipped to cover the elections.
The training would include an in-depth analysis of the Electoral Act and supporting legislative statutory instruments, including international guidelines on the conduct of the media during the elections.
Participants also received safety training, particularly when covering public gatherings such as political rallies.
Beyond safety training, media support and professional organisations led by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa), the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (ZINEF) engaged with the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) on mechanisms of ensuring the safety of journalists and media practitioners in covering the elections.
These engagements have helped establish a professional relationship between media stakeholders and the police service and have resulted in a significant decrease of cases of unlawful arrests and harassment of journalists.
In cases where the police have felt that the media has unfairly reported on them, they have lodged complaints with the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), which is an endorsement of media self regulation.
Media stakeholders have also up-scaled advocacy for the reform of laws and policies that inhibit citizens’ rights to free expression and access to information.
Various stakeholders, including government ministries, political parties and independent commissions have been engaged in advocacy to align media laws with the constitution.
The advocacy has been extended to include the need to ensure that citizens, activists and bloggers enjoy their freedoms online and that they are adequately secured both on and offline.
Enhanced use of social media and the internet is an essential vehicle for citizens to access information and to express themselves.
Another key intervention has been to address challenges pertaining to the under-representation and negative portrayal of women in the media. Using baseline reports produced by Media Monitors, the Gender and Media Connect (GMC) we engaged with various media organisations in formulating gender policies for newsrooms and in providing media coaching to female candidates.
Strong emphasis was also placed on the need to promote citizen and community-based media, taking into cognisance that primary sources of election related news are sometimes not only electoral management bodies but also the potential voters themselves.
It was, therefore, strategic for media stakeholders such as the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (Zacras) and the Media Centre to ensure that community-based citizen journalists have the capacity to report and share information on key developments as they occur in the pre-election period vis-à-vis voter education, delimitation of constituencies, campaign events and voter registration.
As the electoral period reaches fever pitch, it is prudent to assert the state of preparedness for the media to cover the elections in light of the interventions carried out thus far.
This submission posits that the obtaining media environment can be characterised in three respects, that is the good (or results of the interventions), the bad (challenges that the media are facing in covering the elections) and the ugly (which essentially is a reflection of the unexpected explosion at a Zanu PF rally in Bulawayo).
One positive media development has been the reduction in ZEC accreditation fees for journalists who covered the biometric voter registration (BVR) exercise from $10 to $2, which was in response to lobbying and advocacy interventions by media stakeholders, specifically focussed on the need to address the challenge of dual regulation wherein journalists are dually accredited by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) and by ZEC during the electoral period.
It is also good that the ZEC media monitoring committee, chaired by commissioner Laetitia Joyce Kazembe has been engaging with the media and has been seeking technical assistance from local and international organisations that could help the committee to adequately play their media monitoring role.
While the ZMC could better perform their role by publishing periodic reports on the conduct of the media, it is welcome that the committee has been engaging in dialogue meetings, training workshops and information sharing meetings.
As noted in this submission, it is also positive to note that cases of violence against journalists and the media have been declining.
It is also good that there are marginal improvements in how the state broadcaster and controlled media in general have been giving space to some opposition parties and independent candidates, including a live coverage of the manifesto launch of one of the main contenders in this election.
However, it is bad that the media remains largely polarised and that the state-controlled media is still brazenly partisan.
In a baseline report produced by Media Monitors for the first quarter of 2018, at least 87% content of Zimbabwe’s sole free to air national television station, ZTV was dedicated to the ruling party.
This trend has continued during the electoral period and it is a challenge that the ZEC media monitoring committee has no capacity to enforce Statutory Instrument 33 of 2008, which obliges the media to provide fair and equitable coverage to all contesting political parties.
It is also bad that we are in this electoral period without the necessary media laws and policies reform that would create an enabling environment for more independent and private players, especially in the broadcasting sector.
Sadc and the African Union made reference to this challenge and need for reform in 2013 and it is rather unfortunate that the country is firmly in the electoral period without aligning media laws with the constitution.
It is also rather unfortunate that the media does not have adequate resources to cover these elections.
It is the media’s responsibility to take keen interest and invest resources in unpacking this story and in getting down to the matter.
l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently serving as the programmes manager for the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or Whatsapp +263772 501 557