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Zimbabwe: Only Professional, Ethical Journalism Will Make Incoming Regime Accountable

July 29, 2013

With presidential elections in Zimbabwe scheduled for July 31, reports are emerging of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party too indulging in strong arm tactics to shape public opinion. Analysing this polarised situation, Zimbabwean media pundits feel that transparency and accountability after the elections could only emerge if journalists play their role professionally and ethically.
The election, in the main, will see a contest between the 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF seeking a new term, and the opposition candidate, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of MDC. The president and prime minister of the country are contesting each other because although they are from opposing parties, an uneasy truce through a power-sharing arrangement was negotiated between them after the disputed presidential election in 2008.
According to Voice of America (July 24), despite new newspapers and television stations being established, media freedom is under strict State control – meaning control by ZANU-PF. “In the past 18 months, the government has licensed two new radio stations, says CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine. But, she said, those voices are largely drowned out by state media, which she said clearly favors President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.”

Quoting Valentine VOA said, “‘If the state broadcaster, if it were behaving according to journalistic ethics, if it were behaving more like a public broadcaster and offering equal time or proportionate time to different parties, I think then it would not be a problem …  But it is because you have such a slanted state media that I think the problem exists.'”

ZANU-PF exercises control over the media – especially radio and television through the official Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) – by restricting the issue of licences. Referring to the two new radio stations were licensed in Zimbabwe in the past 18months, VOA remarks that “more does not necessarily mean better.”
“ZBC dominates radio and television and has been criticised for acting as a mouthpiece for President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party,” writes Andrew England for the Financial Times (July 24).
Mounting a real challenge to ZBC can only come from overseas, which is why 1st TV broadcasts into Zimbabwe from neighbouring South Africa.
“Now, 1st TV, which broadcast for the first time on Friday, is aiming to put a dent in ZBC’s influence as it lays claims to being the first independent Zimbabwean television station,” reports England.
“‘If the media environment was to become more in line with the rest of the continent, we would move immediately back to Zimbabwe,’ says Andrew Chadwick. Chadwick is 1st TV’s executive producer and a former communications director for Morgan Tsvangirai. “[o]ur information is not linked to what the state broadcaster has been doing for the last 30 years, particularly around elections, when it becomes more and more partisan, filled with hate speech and intolerance for anybody outside Zanu-PF,'” Chadwick continues.
However, while Chadwick’s protestations about the partisanship of ZBC hold water, Tsvangirai and party too have been accused of intimidating and assaulting journalists.
Reporters without Borders, the Paris-based media freedom monitor, commented (June 11), “The ruling Zanu-PF party is not alone in showing hostility to the media and in opposing press freedom… Members of the opposition are also responsible for a climate of intimidation.”… “In May, the prime minister himself threatened the media. ‘You cannot have a newspaper with six articles saying Tsvangirai this and Tsvangirai that … That kind of media has no future in a democratic Zimbabwe… I want to tell you this, muchadya izvozvo (you will face the music).'” RSF said.
RSF said Herbert Moyo of the Zimbabwe Independent was assaulted MDC thugs on June 7, while Mashudu Netsianda of the Chronicle Newspaper was roughed up the day before.
But on June 21, RSF voiced protest at the abduction and assault by masked men of Paul Pindani of NewsDay for a story without a by-line about the arrest of a ruling ZANU-PF party member for the murder of a local businessman. Pindani denies writing the story. “Given the climate of violence and harassment of the media in which the last elections took place, this incident must be taken seriously,” observed RSF.
Assault and intimidation by both parties have resulted in journalists preferring to keep out of trouble by censoring themselves. According to VOA, “Human Rights Watch’s Africa Advocacy Director Tiseke Kasambala said that years of intimidation and harassment have led many independent journalists to self-censor.” Al-Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa reported on July 24, “One headline in (Zimbabwean newspaper) NewsDay grabbed my attention: ‘Journos urged to exercise caution.’ A press freedom watchdog, the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe (MISA), has urged journalists ‘to avoid risky assignments and exposing themselves to volatile political gatherings ahead of harmonised elections this year.'”
Speaking at an event organised by the Washington DC-based National Endowment for Democracy ‘Beyond Elections in Zimbabwe’ on July 23, Foster Dongozi, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and president, South Africa Journalists Association said that the ZUJ did not support either political party contesting the election and was at the receiving end of the violence of both Zanu-PF and MDC. He emphasised that “journalists should demand accountability and transparency whoever will come to power following elections.” And that it was important the journalists worked “professionally and ethically” if the regime was to remain accountable.  
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.