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‘Freedom of the Press’ Just Words on Paper in Zimbabwe

Posted on Oct 14, 2014

By Edna Machirori

  Zimbabwean journalists take part in a march to commemorate World Press Freedom Day in Harare on May 3, 2013. The country’s journalists called on the government to address media reform issues that would pave the way for a better working environment for them. AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

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Editor’s note: This is the second story in Edna Machirori’s two-part series about the media climate in Zimbabwe. Click here to read the first piece and here for more about the Global Voices: Truthdig Women Reporting project.

In 2013, Zimbabwe was ranked 133 out of 179 on a Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom index. In 2008, when disputed and bloody parliamentary and presidential elections were held, Zimbabwe’s ranking plunged to 151.

The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ) commented on this period of state brutality sparked by the elections in a book entitled “The Language of Hate” published in 2009.

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“Zimbabwe’s national elections in June 2008 witnessed a resurgence in the use of ‘hate speech’ in the government controlled media aimed at publicly discrediting Zanu-PF’s legitimate political opposition in a concerted campaign to portray these groups as traitors and puppets intent on undermining the country’s sovereignty,” the authors wrote.

The book noted that the government-controlled media not only reported offensive and undemocratic sentiments without question but endorsed and amplified them in news and current affairs programs of the state broadcaster and in news and “analysis” columns of newspapers under state and party control.

‘‘Such blatant abuse of these media by Zanu-PF constitutes a grave offense against democratic ideals and humanitarian coexistence in its own right,” the authors argue. “But in Zimbabwe where there are few easily accessible, credible domestic sources of information, the use of these media to propagate the language of hatred and intolerance unchallenged represents a most serious threat to the country’s peace and political stability.” 

Zimbabwe’s dismal showings on press freedom rankings are all the more disheartening considering the fact that the nation’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press.

This dichotomy is symptomatic of a contradiction that is pervasive in many developing countries—the existence of progressive constitutional and policy frameworks on paper that serve only as a smokescreen for repressive clampdowns on the media, human rights abuses and abuses of power. The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) commented on this in a 2013 study, writing “Despite the fairly generous provisions of the new constitution, Zimbabwe still retains a plethora of restrictive laws. These pieces of legislation were introduced by the Zanu-PF government in the post 2000 era, a period characterized by frenzied law making by an increasingly authoritarian state as a strategy to contain dissent.”

The VMCZ noted that, despite constitutional guarantees, “There are instances when journalists are subjected to forms of violence which range from harassment to arrests and detention.”

Over the last 34 years that it’s been in power, the government of Robert Mugabe has been adept at lulling the people into welcoming dispensations that soon turn into tools of oppression.

The establishment of the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust soon after independence exemplifies this. Initially the trust, which was supposed to act as a buffer between the media and the caprices of the state, was widely welcomed as a step in the right direction. However, its board of directors was gradually politicized and dominated by Zanu-PF loyalists who promoted a politically partisan agenda.

In a study titled “The State of Journalism Ethics in Zimbabwe,” the VMCZ commented on how Zanu-PF had restructured the state in a way that made it “less tolerant and open to opposition, more militarized, authoritarian and predatory.” It said that by dissolving the media trust, the state removed the buffer, “resulting in the department of information and publicity in the President’s Office assuming direct control of editorial processes and decisions at both Zimpapers and Ziana.”

This politicization applies to boards set up to oversee the operations of state-controlled media entities such as the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, Zimbabwe Newspapers (Zimpapers) and the Zimbabwe Inter Africa News Agency (Ziana). Over the years, this has given ministers of information carte blanche to dismiss editors deemed not to be toeing the party and government line.

Early casualties included the late Willie Musarurwa, who was fired as editor of The Sunday Mail, and Geoffrey Nyarota, who was relieved of the editorship of The Chronicle, both titles in the Zimbabwe Newspapers stable. Nyarota was hounded out after his paper had published an exposé on a scandal that came to be known as “Willowgate.”

The scandal involved a racket in which government ministers and other officials abused a vehicle acquisition scheme to obtain cars from the Willowvale government auto assembly plant at subsidized prices to sell at exorbitant prices for personal gain.

In a case of shooting the messenger, Nyarota’s brand of investigative journalism was denounced as a threat to a nascent democracy. This was an ironic reaction in view of the fact that official corruption is now rampant and a culture of impunity is firmly entrenched.

Nyarota fled to the United States in 2002 before the banning of the Daily News, an independent newspaper of which he was editor-in-chief. He returned to Zimbabwe only a few years ago.

In an ironic development, he was appointed at the end of last year to head an information and media panel tasked with inquiring into the state of the media in the country.

The panel was set up by the same information minister widely perceived as the architect of Zimbabwe’s draconian media laws. Observers question how the panel can make any difference as long as the repressive media laws are still in place.

These laws were supposed to be abolished during the life of a government of national unity formed at the recommendation of the African Union after disputed elections in 2008 that Zanu-PF was accused of rigging and using violence to terrorize the electorate. Zanu-PF blocked the implementation of media and electoral reforms until last year when it won another disputed election.

 


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