Zimbabwe losing its media freedom battle

It may not seem like it to many Zimbabweans, but the evidence points to a marginal improvement in media freedom in Zimbabwe, albeit from a very low base. Indeed, in its 2011 report on global media freedom, US think-tank Freedom House noted a “modest improvement” in the regulatory environment, including the licensing of new daily newspapers, and “fewer physical attacks” on journalists. That the report mentions physical attacks underlines how dire conditions really are.

“Even with these gains, however,” the report says, “the media landscape in Zimbabwe remained extremely repressive with near-total government control over the broadcast sector, foot-dragging on attempts to open new broadcast outlets and continued legal and physical harassment of independent journalists.”

On the Freedom House media freedom scorecard, Zimbabwe edges up from a low point of 90 (the higher the score, the less press freedom there is) in 2006 to 81 in 2011, but that is a great deal worse than the best score of 48 recorded in 1993 and compares with 33 in SA, where media freedom is deteriorating according to the index.

The licensing of new newspapers and the unbanning of the Daily News, which was off the streets for seven years, mark a step forward. But circulation figures compiled by the Zimbabwe Advertising Research Foundation (Zarf) highlight the dominance of the state-owned media. The Herald, the main Harare daily, has a circulation of 1,86m, double that of either of the two main independent dailies, the Daily News (926000) and NewsDay (974000). The latter is part of the Trevor Ncube stable, which owns the Mail & Guardian in SA. Media executives warn, however, that these circulation figures come with health warnings.

It’s a similar story for the weeklies, dominated by the Sunday Mail in Harare with a circulation of 1,1m — more than five times that of its main rival, the Standard (200000). Though both the Herald and the Mail and their sister publications in Bulawayo are stateowned, they do not support the governing coalition, but President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.

The other main coalition party, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, is the target of frequent, withering criticism in the government media, not just the newspaper but radio and TV, which are similarly partisan in their coverage, strongly supportive of Zanu-PF. Two independent weeklies, the Financial Gazette (96000) and the Independent (73000), especially the latter, are more objective.

Circumscribed as they are by a bewildering array of restrictions covering media access to official reports, and harassed and arrested for alleged misdemeanours, reporters still manage to unearth stories that not only seriously embarrass the politicians but are also obviously in the public interest. One such is the scandal unearthed last month by the Daily News, which reported that the Mugabe family owes the state-owned electricity utility, Zesa, US345000, while defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa was reported to owe $240000.

Zesa, which is unable to settle a bill for 80m for electricity imports from Mozambique Hydro Cahora Bassa, says it is owed $450m in unpaid electricity bills. Clearly, the amounts run up by senior politicians and securocrats were not household expenses but power consumption in business ventures, predominantly farms. The reports fuelled public anger over the fact that ordinary citizens who owe Zesa a few hundred dollars are having their power cut off, while those with massive bills are not.

With elections little more than a year away, it’s a safe bet that a growing number of politicians from all parties are going to be embarrassed by such leaks — and that as a result, what Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project head Andy Moyse calls “the wanton harassment” of journalists will continue, if not intensify.

Godfrey Majonga, who chairs the state-appointed Zimbabwe Media Commission, wants to stop foreign newspapers from coming to the country unless their proprietors have registered with his commission in terms of the draconian Access to Information & Protection of Private Property Act.

The logic is hard to follow. Foreign media coverage of Zimbabwe has slowed to a bored trickle, mostly based on reports in the Zimbabwe media. It is the broadcast media, especially satellite television, that pose a far greater threat to Zanu-PF. Having lost some of its control over the print media with the arrival of new newspapers, Zanu-PF is taking care to ensure the same does not happen on the airwaves. Last year, two commercial radio licences were issued to companies linked to the party, sparking a political row over the make-up of the Broadcasting Authority that made the awards.

Zarf data shows that there are over 2m satellite dishes in Zimbabwe, implying that a high proportion of households have access to TV services provided from outside the country. Over three-quarters of these are in high-density urban (lowincome) and rural areas.

All of this suggests that there is little to be gained politically from shackling the media. That Tsvangirai and his party appear to be far more popular than Zanu suggests that the media are far less influential than they like to believe. One reason for this, says Moyse, is that print media circulation outside the main cities is tiny. With the dramatic increase in cellphone penetration (an estimated 85% of the population have mobiles) and accompanying growth in social media, both print and broadcast media, especially state radio and TV, have lost influence.

That more than three years after installation of the much-hyped government of national unity, progress towards media freedom has been glacial is just more evidence of the failure of the coalition government. Some in the media believe the MDC should — and could — be championing the reform cause more vigorously, but Zanu-PF sees no mileage in reform. Because it has no message to sell the electorate, it is best to keep voters in the dark.