As citizens, we rely on the media to provide facts and interpretations on issues which affect our everyday lives and permeate our communities and broader society. The information the public receives from the radio, TV, newspapers, and the internet allows us as citizens to interpret and understand our society. The media also provides us with the information that we need to make economic, social and political choices thus allowing us to critically engage with fellow citizens and public representatives.
It is the role of the media to ensure content is fully representative of the communities that it serves, supporting developmental and democratic political principles, while adhering to professional ethical standards. The elements of this normative role of the media provide the cornerstone of the “social responsibility theory”. Under this framework, the media is also obliged to represent all social and political groups and reflect this difference and diversity by affording citizens access to various viewpoints to make informed decisions.
A seemingly redundant question to ask is, does Zimbabwe have a diverse and plural media landscape? One which is inclusive and representative of different social and political viewpoints as well as representing issues from different regions. A media landscape that recognizes minorities and is sensitive to gender balance in content and employment.
Is Zimbabwe’s media ownership plural in terms of ownership of the entities which set the agenda and decide what is newsworthy? What are the implications of the current ownership structure on public discourse? The answers to these questions surely open up a can of worms and bring to the fore issues on media policy and regulation. Does Zimbabwe have an inclusive media landscape which safeguards fundamental democratic principles such as freedom of expression and access to information?
It is common knowledge that media freedom in Zimbabwe has remained heavily restricted and curtailed for the better part of the past three decades. Media practitioners in the private practice have been operating in a challenging legal and regulatory environment. Essentially, it has been the Zimbabwean public who have been disadvantaged from this stagnation, a result of years of constricted and polarised media and a partisan / compromised public broadcaster and press. The absence of a competitive and plural alternative, has had the intended / unintended consequence of Zimbabwean media not fulfilling its role in what was once a fledgling democracy.
The most obvious example of Zimbabweans’ hunger for quality and diverse TV programming is their disillusionment with state TV resulting in the mushrooming of Wiztech satellite dishes which offer the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s stations, Botswana TV, BBC and France TV among others. Essentially, this vote of no confidence implies the content produced does not speak to the issues and concerns of the broader majority and the public yearns to see and hear alternative voices.
However, the provisions in the constitution provide hope of a more plural and diverse media landscape. Of late, there have been encouraging developments which indicate the landscape is becoming more diverse and plural, but of course not at the pace that critics would want to see. The licensing of mainstream newspapers, private/commercial radio stations in operation such as ZiFm Stereo and Star FM indicate this sluggish growth.
From last year, a number of organisations applied for (regional) commercial radio licences and have since gone through the procedural public hearings, a welcome development to consolidate plurality in the sector. However, a contentious issue remains in the licensing of community radio stations, signalling a jitteriness by authorities to restructure our media systems to allow diverse community messages and voices to be heard.
Another welcome development happened last year when HIVOS, working with the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the Royal Danish Embassy organised a five-week long media diversity campaign which sought to highlight and create awareness on the country’s current media landscape in Zimbabwe. What was apparent in the discussions was that Zimbabwe needs a robust and diverse media which engages its citizens to ensure their views contribute to the creation of sound policies.
Speaking on the campaign, Netherlands Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Gera Sneller said media diversity, “…means that a wide array of media reaches everyone across the country, irrespective of gender, age or socio-economic background… it means that all voices within a society are heard.”
“When a diverse media landscape exists, decision-makers know what issues are on people’s minds and they can be held accountable for their actions. As such, a diverse media serves as a tool for decision-makers to improve policy.”
However, it seems there is a lack of urgency and commitment on the part of policy and decision makers to promote media diversity. Article 61 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the media which includes freedom of establishment. By implication this assures diversity and plurality. It is worth noting however that laws that hindered media diversity in the past are yet to be repealed.
Section 61 (4) of the constitution states that “All State-owned media of communication must— … (b) be impartial; and (c) afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions”. Interestingly, the public broadcaster ZBC has increasingly shown an unwillingness to adhere to such provisions which ensure a plurality of opinion and diverse representations.
The most poignant example of the state broadcaster’s partisan coverage is undoubtedly its coverage of the Zanu PF sixth elective congress. Zanu PF enjoyed full coverage over the past few days on ZTV but the opposition MDC’s elective congress which ironically took place last month was not broadcast on state TV. Similarly, the ceremony which saw the unification of the MDC led by Prof Welshman Ncube and the “MDC Renewal” group led by Tendai Biti did not receive coverage on public TV; a blatant disregard of what the constitution stipulates.
A diverse and plural media would ensure the fair coverage of such important events to ensure citizens can critically engage on such issues. It is important for the voices of all political formations to be represented in the public dialogue if we are to ensure our democracy flourishes.
However, if the media continues to fall short on its role to provide impartial and fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions, this surely has dire consequences on public discourse. What permeates the public sphere and what constitutes everyday conversations are undoubtedly the issues which are represented in mass media, never mind the quality of the products or the producers’ professionalism.
If and when some perceived unpopular opinions and issues are purged or dissimulated (dissimulation is in itself a rhetoric strategy), it becomes an attack on principles of access to information and free speech. As such, to ensure we cultivate a democratic culture of engagement, tolerance to different opinions, transparency and accountability, it is imperative (and the responsibility is primarily on the government) that we have a diverse and plural media landscape, representative of the different facets of our society.