BY NIGEL NYAMUTUMBU
Like all other industries across the world, there has been an adverse impact on the operations of the media as a result of the various measures that have been put in place to combat and respond to the spread and threat of the novel coronavirus global pandemic.
The future of the media industry has been a subject of immense debate, with some pundits predicting that coronavirus, which is also known as Covid-19 will account for the death of the industry in the same manner it has on people. Others have been forecasting light at the end of the tunnel, arguing that this is an opportunity for a renaissance of legacy media.
This submission will not seek to weigh into this debate, given the varying extents to which different countries will support legacy media to recover from the impact of the global pandemic and other socio-economic and political factors that are peculiar from one region to another.
Rather, I will use this submission to specifically zoom into the support mechanisms for the Zimbabwean media in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Basing on a media needs assessment carried out by the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), I will review some of the interventions that have been carried out to support the media by various actors. I will conclude by making a case for the state and non-state actors to seriously consider enhancing interventions aimed at strengthening the media’s democratic role on the frontlines of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
It is, however, imperative to start by putting things into perspective, particularly in appreciating the context in which local media operates.
The Zimbabwean media has existing challenges, ranging from an unfavourable legislative and policy environment, unsustainable operations, economic recession, unsafe working environment, political interference, lack of diversity, inaccessible and highly priced internet services, among other impingements.
As such, the measures to combat Covid-19 that the government introduced, though necessary, have come at cost, as most political, social and economic activities have worsened the plight of the media sector.
The operations of the media sector, though it is among some of the identified essential services continues to be hampered by the myriad of pre-existing unfavourable conditions.
As a measure of ascertaining the impact of Covid-19 on the media sector, MAZ conducted a rapid response needs assessment to identify how the industry could be supported.
The needs assessment, coupled with the other initiatives that MAZ and other media stakeholders have been implementing to support the industry and enhance citizens’ rights to access credible information, provide a basis to coordinate and strengthen interventions around the media’s role in the fight against Covid-19.
Some of the interventions carried out by MAZ and other media stakeholders include:
Fact checking: Some pundits have noted that the dissemination of false information and disinformation during this period has been a “crisis within crisis”.
The fake news largely driven by social media influencers has fuelled panic, alarm and despondency, thus misleading the general populace.
Citizens who have been misled by this false information have taken misguided measures in preventing Covid-19. As such, there have been efforts to fact-check mainstream and alternative media to ensure citizens are equipped with accurate information.
Zimbabwe Covid-19 tracker: Media stakeholders initiated a tracking platform that has info-graphics and coordinates with the relevant government and health stakeholders in assisting citizens to track the spread of Covid-19.
The tracker also assists citizens in critical decision-making, including on whether they should urgently get tested based on the spread of infections in a particular geographic area.
The tracker has complimented mainstream media by providing timely, credible information for citizens.
Content production and information packaging: MAZ partners who work within communities have been producing content that equips citizens and raises awareness on Covid-19 in an easily comprehendible format.
Community broadcasters and publishers have been using their proximity to citizens to localise information that has been disseminated from national platforms.
Campaign for journalists’ safety:
The journalists union and editors’ forum have been engaging media organisations to ensure that they observe all the safety precautions as obtained in the global guidelines.
In addition, they have been urging media organisations to provide protective clothing for the media workforce.
Media stakeholders have issued press releases and alerts to this effect.
Gender mainstreaming: There have been platforms created to particularly support female media practitioners, who are affected differently during the course of covering the pandemic.
An ongoing advocacy campaign to ensure equal treatment and fair remuneration for journalists during this period is being embarked on.
Support to freelance journalists and citizen journalists: Freelance journalists and citizen journalists are being supported with information leads and tips on how to innovate the production of news without physical contact.
Campaign against the high cost of data: Media stakeholders have initiated a campaign against the high cost of data, especially considering that citizens are going to be relying on using the internet during the lockdown period.
As such, there are efforts underway to engage with government and internet service providers to ensure the costs of accessing the internet does not hinder citizens right to economic, social and political activities online.
Media defence: There have been recorded cases of violations against the media during the lockdown period.
The violations have been predominately perpetuated by the police and other security apparatus. Journalists have either been detained, harassed or arrested during the course of their duties. Media defence lawyers have been deployed to support the journalists in distress.
In addition, Misa Zimbabwe filed an application before the High Court to order the police not to interfere with the work of journalists, which was granted by the court.
Going forward: Despite the interventions and successes, some of which have not been mentioned in this submission, there are areas that are still pertinent going forward.
These gaps include the need to further support the media with personal protective equipment and enhancing mechanisms to guarantee journalists safety on the frontlines of reporting the Covid-19 pandemic.
There will also be need to enhance the quality of the reportage, particularly strengthening journalistic ethical codes of conduct in covering the sensitivities around Covid-19.
Specific support needs to be extended to freelance journalists and community media, who do not have any form of support mechanism.
The production of content in all languages and campaigns around misinformation, high costs of data, gender mainstreaming and the safety of journalists need to be sustained.
Ultimately, there is going to be need for serious introspection on how legacy media is going to be sustained, the need to review business models and to venture more into developmental forms of journalism.
Media stakeholders from governments, regional bodies, media proprietors, professional associations and civil society as well as development partners should support the media on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner currently serving as the programmes manager of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on email@example.com or +263 772 501 557.
*This article first appeared in The Accent, a MAZ iniative