Like a typical summer day in Zimbabwe, the sky was clear and the temperatures soaring. This was no ordinary day.
The events that had occurred prior to this landmark day were unprecedented.
By Nigel Nyamutumbu
Zimbabweans had three days earlier woken up to the face and voice of a senior army official, clad in full regalia, announcing a key political development that would set a new direction for the country.
On this day, for the first time in the history of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), a demonstration against the country’s founding president Robert Mugabe was not only covered live, but also accurately and in a non-partisan manner.
The live and accurate reportage of this landmark event by the sole free-to-air television station in the country was not the only first, it was also the first time that the Zimbabwean citizens could rely on the state broadcaster for news and information.
All of a sudden, ZBC became a channel of choice, providing key updates and, for good measure, provided the under-siege Mugabe the opportunity to “respond” in an eagerly-awaited address to the nation.
For the first time, people trusted the largely partisan broadcast media for news.
There was also an upsurge in the uptake of mainstream print media news.
It is fair to predict that most print media outlets, both within the state-controlled and the private space, had few returns during this period.
In those few days, it was difficult to tell which paper belonged to which stable as the headlines and narratives would be almost similar.
Most of the newspapers editorials emphasised the need for the country to observe peace and most analysts envisaged the prospects of what a new Zimbabwe would look like post the imminent fall of the tyranny rule of Mugabe.
Of course, there was a lot of speculation on social media. But that is something that was to be expected given how most Zimbabweans are either political scientists or analysts or are linked to someone powerful.
This was also a period filled with frenzy and anxiety. As such, the more information was not readily available for the citizens, the more there was fertile ground for speculation.
A report produced in December 2017 by Media Monitors, commissioned by the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) in partnership with the International Media Support (IMS) and support of the European Union (EU) and the Norwegian Foreign Affairs ministry noted that “throughout the transition period, ZTV had four breaking news bulletins on November 6 2017 to announce the firing of Vice-President Mnangagwa; another on November 15 to announce the military intervention, then on November 19 when former the president Robert Mugabe read an address to the nation, and on the November 21 when Mugabe resigned from office”.
“The special editions published by NewsDay and The Herald and breaking news bulletins on ZTV indicate the media effort at agenda-setting by directing public attention to major political events that were occurring.”
Indeed this was a period in which the media played its agenda-setting role.
Barely a month post the transition and ushering-in of the so-called new dispensation, the Zimbabwean media — public in particular — returned to default mode.
They merely replaced the face and voice of Mugabe with that of the incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa. The state-controlled print media resorted back to being the mouthpiece of the ruling party, Zanu PF.
Positive pronouncements by the government to the effect that it was no longer business as usual and reforms were imminent remained just that — positive pronouncements.
Nothing on the ground suggested that government had any sense of urgency or even intention to reform the media sector.
The laws and policies that became synonymous with the authoritarian rule of Mugabe remain intact. Responses or the excuses by government on the status quo have been varied depending on who and/or where they will be speaking.
On one day, officials at the Information, Media and Broadcasting Services ministry allude to the reason that government is still distilling recommendations of the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) report of 2014 — whose process in compiling used taxpayers’ funding — and that an all-stakeholders consensus building meeting will be convened “soon”.
More recently, the permanent secretary in the Media ministry and presidential spokesperson George Charamba, at a meeting convened by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the Zimbabwe Media Commission, revealed that government were seized with laws that had a direct bearing on the elections.
According to the bureaucrat, he struggles to find the link between the laws that fall under his ministry—the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Broadcasting Services Act—despite submissions from the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa Zimbabwe) on the same.
This level of hypocrisy has been the order of the day in Mnangagwa’s administration. Say one thing during the day and do the opposite at night.
With much of the attention being exerted on the media’s conduct during the upcoming elections, I am cautiously optimistic and hopeful that the Zimbabwean media landscape is poised for change, whatever the outcome.
An assessment of the political parties’ manifestos conducted by MAZ confirms that there is general consensus on the need for media reforms among most of the contesting parties.
Outside of this commitment by political leaders, my hope also emanates from the incremental gains that the Zimbabwean media has been achieving over the last years, emanating from interventions carried out by organisations under the banner of MAZ, thanks to the support of various development partners.
We have progressive constitutional provisions to guarantee media freedom, the advent of the internet has brought about immense opportunities and there have been reduced cases of violence against journalists.
But this hope is punctuated by fear. This fear is justified. Our media has been captured and the channels of expression are dangerously in a few hands.
There are still threats on the safety and security of journalists, though subtle.
Our media is facing dire capacity and sustainability challenges and there is no appetite, at least in the current administration, to urgently reform the sector.
This is something Zimbabweans should be worried about as media freedom is the cornerstone of any democracy.
But then again, we have stooped so low the only way we can go is up! Of course, this hope can only be realised if the electoral processes are completed peacefully and amicably.
l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, serving as the programmes manager of MAZ. He can be contacted on email, firstname.lastname@example.org or Whatsapp +263 772 501 557. This article was first published on the IMS website