The recent changes and restructuring in the state-controlled media, engineered by the Department of Information and Publicity, is beginning to pay dividends according to the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe. “The two main media institutions, Zimbabwe Newspapers and ZBC (the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation), have now become dedicated, professional and efficient propaganda machines for the government, manipulating the news in favour of the ruling party at the expense of the truth,” MMPZ says.
It says there can no longer be any question that the constant stream of coordinated misinformation being disseminated by these two organisations is a grave and extreme abuse of journalistic standards. In the case of the ZBC, which still enjoys a de facto monopoly of the airwaves, MMPZ says, its distortion of the news is an insult to its mandate to provide the public with diverse, fair and accurate information of national issues and amounts to a serious contravention of the constitutional right of Zimbabweans to fair and accurate information.
But writer Ben Mahaka argues that no one should be spared. Even the privately-owned media and the Media Monitoring Project itself have lost objectivity. “Impartiality seems to have died completely within everyone in Zimbabwe who has the responsibility of informing,” he wrote in the MMPZ newsletter. “While this may please those amongst us who want to advance their causes at any cost and those who need to have their skewed views corroborated – no matter how patently obvious the shortcomings in reporting, it does nothing but shame the writers in the eyes of those who somehow manage to remain impartial and understand the meaning of journalistic ethics.”
“It’s even more troubling when the referees like yourselves (MMPZ) can justly be accused of the above…….Your role, in your own words, ‘is to sensitise media practitioners to their role in presenting balanced and impartial information’ – not to rant and rave in line with anything that is claimed in the private press – even if these views are expressed unchallenged in your social circles and so you appear heroic in your friends’ eyes. By choosing to be monitors, you have chosen a much narrower route than the man on the street. You have chosen to disagree with close friends and even your paymasters if you can see that they are wrong – no matter how impolite that might seem.
“You have committed to awarding penalties to the away team if one of the players on your home team commits a foul. When you stop seeing any fault in your home team then the whole game is a farce. When, during the 90 minutes that the game is played, you support one team, you have become a cheat, and you are now no better than the hooligans throwing bottles from the benches. You are even more corrupt than they are because you masquerade as defenders of fairness.
“I strongly believe in a free and diverse press and I welcomed the introduction of the independent press in this country. I saw it as a means of holding a too-powerful government accountable for its policies and deeds. I believed that having an independent press to spar with the government-controlled media would stimulate constructive debate that would lead to constructive change in our nation. They have proved me wrong…and you have disappointed many of us out here,” Mahaka wrote.
The media in Zimbabwe has become so polarised that one is left wondering what to believe. Worse still, each media head is claiming to be adherring to journalistic ethics and is supposedly giving balanced stories.
Take the case of national hero Cain Nkala, for example. When he disappeared, the State-media was quick to blame his kidnapping on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The private media said it was an inside job. When his body was discovered at a farm near Solusi University, the national broadcaster showed us one of the accused relating how they had done it and confessing that he was a member of the MDC. The accused also named his sponsors.
There was no attempt to protect the “accused” until he had been proven guilty. The Chronicle, in a story written by the editor of the paper, was more blatant: “Cde Nkala was kidnapped by opposition Movement for Democratic Change gunmen from his Magwegwe home last Monday,” read part of the front page story, published on November 17 after he had been declared a national hero.
Not to be outdone, the national broadcaster said that MDC youths had burnt down the Zimbabwe Distance Education College (ZDECO), owned by politburo member, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu.
While this might have been true and could have been viewed as retaliation since MDC offices in the town had been set alight, the ZBC said the same MDC youths had burnt their own offices to destroy evidence linking the party to the murder of Cain Nkala.
According to the Daily News the MDC offices were petrol bombed by war veterans who has been marching through the city escorted by riot police. About 2 000 MDC youths, the paper said, had gone on to burn Ndlovu’s college in retaliation. It is not clear how the media expects a sane, normal person to believe this yarn.
What should be interesting though is the bottom line. Are the newspapers making money or are they just spinning their tales until the presidential elections? Sources at the Bulawayo daily, for example, say circulations have plunged to pre-independence levels.
The daily is reported to be selling as little as 12 000 copies in Bulawayo on some days, and only 25 000 nationally. Circulation at independence was around 30 000 and at the time of the Willogate scandal it rose to over 85 000. Vendors, paid on commission, are reported to be complaining that stories the paper is publishing are not selling and because of the drop is sales they are starving.
But the drop in circulation has not stopped the paper from expanding its newsroom. Some reports say the new editor has been mandated to employ over 40 reporters. The package too is good and the paper has recruited journalists from its competitors as it beefs up its newsroom. But they have to toe the line or be fired. The new editor is reported to be telling staff that he does not have time to give anyone notice as he will not be given any notice.