How to free the media in Zimbabwe

After Robert Mugabe goes, Zimbabweans will have to face the fact that they have not enjoyed freedom of expression and a free media to the extent they should have as a modern and independent nation.

A colonial and Rhodesian legacy of a media system that underpins repression was reinforced, after independence, instead of being dismantled. Zimbabwe remains one of very few countries in the world where the government still enjoys a monopoly of broadcasting and controls the largest print media company.

Parallels with North Korea might seem over the top, but it is undeniable that Zimbabweans have been denied a diverse media system that supports democratic citizenship.

A media system that is designed and operated to control rather than allow free flow of information and open discussion has directly contributed to forestalling democratic change and reform. In particular, the state media have not allowed the political opposition and civil society a voice.

During election periods, the state media have denied the electorate the ability to evaluate the different political programmes and policies of competing candidates by refusing access to opposition parties. A lack of media diversity and editorially independent mass media in Zimbabwe has led directly to lack of political diversity.


Most countries in Africa have media systems in which there is some private and community-owned media that are editorially independent from government control.

It is not surprising that in these countries there have been some political reforms and some degree of political pluralism, because only through media pluralism is it possible to have circulating contesting ideas and discourses that feed democratic habits.

In contrast, in its 27 years of independence Zimbabwe has only enjoyed at most three years of the existence of mass-circulation, privately owned, daily newspapers — the short lived Daily Gazette and the Daily News.

The reality of a large, state-controlled media monopoly contrasts with the population’s high literacy rates and an appetite for reading that is one of the highest on the continent.

Media outside the country

As a result of the closed media space, Zimbabwe is now a country with a vibrant system of online and broadcast surrogate media based outside the country and complemented by a few weekly independent titles inside.

To some extent, this is a result of the more than three million Zimbabweans in the diaspora who wish to protest against oppression and debate change. Zimbabweans have become masters of alternative communication and media strategies as surrogates for mainstream media.

After Mugabe goes, Zimbabweans need to make a clean break with a media system characterised by information control and unidirectional messages increasingly out of kilter with realities on the ground.

It will be necessary to embark without delay on a radical programme of media reform, informed not only by an ideal to create media free of editorial control by the government, private owners and advertisers, but also pluralistic and diverse media that are accountable to the public and serve their information and communication needs.

South Africa should provide a useful example, and not those countries where political transitions have been hijacked by leaders who, upon replacing dictators, transmute into dictators themselves using the same instruments, institutions and laws that they were supposedly fighting.

But Zimbabwe must go further than South Africa if it is to ensure that powerful parties never again hold the nation to ransom through their control of the media. It must avoid creating huge media monopolies that are owned or linked to powerful political and economic interests that, in the long term, create oligarchies with strangle participatory democracy.

A failure to dismantle quickly a media system based on severe restrictions on freedom of expression will be one of the major factors — if not the single factor — that leads to an aborted political transition from authoritarian rule to political processes in which Zimbabweans have a chance to debate and participate in creating a new society.

Laws repealed

Zimbabweans must learn from the recent history of aborted transitions that even those who are currently fighting for democracy will be the first to be tempted and seek to control the media when they begin to face the difficult challenges of actually governing.

Specifically, actions need to be taken to repeal laws or particular sections of laws that infringe media freedom and freedom of expression. A new constitution must unequivocally guarantee freedom of expression and of the media to ensure that they are beyond the control of all powerful parties, in particular the state and any government of the day.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act does not go far enough in allowing the right and access to information. It is heavily weighted towards official secrecy and does not promote a culture of accountability — something that has been scarce as a value in public life. Only editorially free media can nurture accountability.

A new Zimbabwe needs modern laws of disclosure and access to information in the public interest that promote transparency. Access to information and disclosure will also be a necessary as a weapon against endemic corruption.

Equally, the Public Order and Security Act and the Official Secrets Act must be repealed because they are in fundamental conflict with the right to freedom of expression and of the media to access and disseminate information in the public interest.

Criminal defamation that can only serve to shield public and powerful figures from a probing media for fear of being sued should also be abolished in favour of legislation that enables access to information.

Any provisions of security and defence legislation that restrict the functions of the media — including sections of the Parliamentary Privileges and Immunities Act that give Parliament the power to sit as a court and imprison journalists for revealing information obtained from parliamentary committees — should be repelled because they impinge on freedom of expression.

Media regulation

The Media and Information Commission should be dissolved and its powers to license media houses and journalists immediately abolished. All newspapers that have been closed should be allowed to resume publication. All foreign media that have been expelled should be allowed to return.

In the place of the Media and Information Commission, Zimbabwe needs an independent, publicly funded agency that promotes media diversity — in particular, one that can nurture grassroots participatory media that are controlled by ordinary people. Such an agency should regulate media ownership and promote the production of high-quality content by Zimbabweans using innovative production strategies.

Zimbabwe will need a new media policy and regulatory framework anchored in respecting and promoting freedom of expression as an inalienable human right. New broadcasting laws that remove the control of broadcasting from government control and state ownership are needed.

As in South Africa and other democratic nations of the world, an independent communications regulator with enough resources to enable the emergence of a diverse and pluralistic broadcasting system should be created. It is the independent regulator, not the government, that must allocate licences and monitor compliance with licence conditions.

At the centre of the broadcasting system should be an independent public broadcaster competing for audiences with privately owned stations on programmes and complementing community stations. Critical to the role of the broadcasting system should be its ability to inform Zimbabweans about their rights so that they can exercise them.

Policy makers must also take advantage of new digital technologies and digitisation to ensure that limited frequency spectrum is not a constraint to creating a diverse and dense broadcasting network that enables Zimbabweans to have choices. Apart from being caught in the time warp of a state-controlled broadcasting monopoly, Zimbabwe’s broadcasting system is technologically outdated.

State agency

The state-owned print media and news agency needs to be transformed into a genuine public medium by radically changing its governance, management and funding, and reorienting it to serve the public interest. It will simply not be possible to create political pluralism in Zimbabwe without an independent public media system that underpins citizenship rights.

To effect this transformation, the boards of Zimpapers, New Ziana and the ZBC should be reconstituted. Independent persons with knowledge, qualifications and experience in media and communication studies, journalism, broadcasting, media law, accounting and management, culture and the arts, media technology and representatives of civil society organizations should be appointed. The boards should hire all senior managers and editorial staff on merit. The boards should report and be accountable to a multiparty committee of Parliament, not the government.

Zimbabwe will need to develop media professionals who have high ethical values and see journalism as serving the public interest.

A history of censorship has inculcated partisanship and practices that compromise journalism. To nurture positive values, journalists should form a voluntary, self-regulating media council that will draw up professional codes of conduct, monitor ethical violations, use peer pressure and other sanctions that do not impede freedom of expression and editorial and programming independence. All media should publicise the professional code of conduct, as well as the processes and procedures that members of the public should follow if they have complaints.

Zimbabweans will also have to develop, appreciate and defend a culture of freedom of expression and realise that defending and promoting freedom of expression is an integral part of a democratic culture.

Citizens should avoid the temptation to remain silent or to acquiescence to limitations on freedom of expression because it might suit their prejudices or beliefs. Freedom of expression and of the media belongs to all.

The silencing of one is the silencing of all!

Tawana Kupe is dean of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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