When Change Comes

Around the world, people involved in the Zimbabwe debate talk about the WHAM factor or ‘What happens after Mugabe?”

When freedom comes, rebuilding Zimbabwe will be a huge task, costing tens of billions of dollars in donor funding. However, unless the media is removed from state control and there is real diversification, the potential exists for the country to slip back into tyranny, regardless of how much work is done in other fields.

When the Mugabe government came to power in 1980, it inherited a state-run broadcasting system that included four radio stations in Harare and Bulawayo and Africa’s first television service which had been set up in the late 1950s.

Radio and TV had long been controlled by the ministry of information, and the previous governments of Ian Smith and Abel Muzorewa used the electronic media to great effect as part of their propaganda.

But Mugabe imposed even tighter control and, within two years, it was clear that his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) was set to monopolise the airwaves.

The press - a stable of dailies in Harare and Bulawayo, two Sunday papers and a weekly in the eastern border town of Mutare - was run by a public company, owned 46 per cent by the Argus group in South Africa (now Independent News & Media).

In 1981, the new government nationalised the print media and bought out Argus.

Weeklies and dailies started up in competition to the state-owned Zimbabwe Newspapers. Today three weeklies survive, but some of the world’s most repressive media legislation makes it almost impossible for independent journalists to do their work.
The Daily News, which began publication in 1999 and proved to be the most popular newspaper in the country’s history, was shut down by the state in 2003.

So, what will happen when change comes to Zimbabwe?

Basildon Peta is a former secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and was previously editor of the weekly Financial Gazette.

In 2002, Peta had to flee the country and now works in Johannesburg as Africa correspondent for Independent News & Media. He is also general secretary of the Southern Africa Journalists Association (SAJA), a regional support project for the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

He is optimistic that the media could be rebuilt.

”Zimbabwe had succeeded in establishing a vibrant independent press before Mugabe started cowing all forms of dissent using apartheid-style tactics,” Peta told me when we met recently to discuss the issue.

‘The professionals who can restore the media are there, particularly in the print sector. What will of course be needed are resources. After the experience of the Daily News, few people will be willing to invest in the Zimbabwe media, even if there is regime change.”

Peta also believes that the international community should pressure any new government to uphold freedom of the press.

”Without this basic right, the country’s long-term stability and progress will be in jeopardy and that doesn’t make sense,” he said. ‘Donor countries will be investing billions to rebuild the country and the best way to ensure that this money is not misused is to is to create a free and outspoken media.”

The broadcast sector may be more difficult. Trained staff have largely deserted the turbid Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). Not only are there few journalists (as opposed to propagandists), but the engineers and technical crews have also left.

In London, Gerry Jackson runs a radio station that broadcasts into Zimbabwe seven days a week, from 6pm to 9pm.

As its name suggests, SW Radio Africa beams out on short wave, but its footprint extends from Kariba well past Johannesburg and covers all of Zimbabwe.

Jackson had tried to establish a private station in Harare and was backed by the Supreme Court, which ruled there was no legislation giving the ZBC a monopoly. But within days of Capital Radio going to air in 2000, Mugabe decreed it illegal for anyone but the state to posses a transmitter, after which troops shut down Capital Radio at gunpoint.

Gerry and her team moved to England from where they have been broadcasting for nearly three years.

‘In light of the depth of the tragedy of the Zimbabwe situation, I think what you need now is a mass of community radio stations,” she told me on the phone from London.

”They’d all have to be donor funded and specific to the different areas: Bulawayo needs one or more, likewise Harare and each of the high density areas should have their own.

”I know in Mozambique there was a funded project of putting radio stations into old shipping containers which were then trucked out of town and deposited around the country. Locals were taught how to use a microphone, a small transmitter was plopped on the roof of the container and it was enough to get Mozambique talking.”

Television, she says, could be more of a challenge.

‘If a new government took over the ZBC and ran it as a true public service broadcaster, the facilities are there to create good television.

‘We used to have really good production staff in every area at ZTV, editing, voice overs, artwork, set design, script writing, presenting, engineering, wardrobe and make up. But, as far as I know, they’ve all left. You’d need donor funding and input from foreign stations to build a real television service.”

But, she says, the work should start now.

‘Zimbabwe needs real healing and it is difficult to find presenters who understand that broadcasting is more than just spinning a disc and being cool.

‘Right now, today, donors should be queuing up to fund media training courses. There are millions of Zimbabweans living in exile, mostly in Britain and South Africa and it would not be hard for radio stations like the BBC, Radio Australia, Deutsche Welle in Germany and the SABC to offer internships for future presenters and technical staff.

‘After change in Zimbabwe, a new government might encourage the many presenters who’ve fled to return, but that would only be a fraction of what you need.”

Basildon Peta agrees.

‘There is a lot of talk about what it would take to rebuild Zimbabwe, but everyone is waiting for the change before they do anything,” he said. ‘And when that change happens, the media will need rapid reform if democracy is to hold its ground.

‘There will not be time to train people in a country where so many writers, and virtually everyone in the electronic media, think that journalism is just about singing praise to the government.”

A friend who runs an NGO told me recently that the one thing she found more frightening than the idea of Mugabe and his party staying in power was a sudden change to freedom. Not that she wouldn’t welcome it, but, she said, Britain, the US, Australia and the EU, who have been loud in their calls for change, have done little to help the country prepare for a democratic future.

She may well be right.

In the media, as in the rest of Zimbabwe, what happens after Mugabe depends on the work done now to develop the tools we need to build a nation that is truly free.

Geoff Hill is southern Africa correspondent for a daily newspaper in Washington DC. His book, The Battle for Zimbabwe - Final Countdown (Zebra/New Holland), was published at the end of 2003.

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